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Nigerian nationals accused of running unemployment scam

The two men allegedly collected unemployment insurance in the name of other people, according to US prosecutors.

Two Nigerian nationals living in Massachusetts have been arrested for allegedly defrauding Americans through online scams during the coronavirus pandemic, in some cases collecting unemployment insurance in the name of others, federal prosecutors said Monday.

The US Attorney’s office for Massachusetts said Monday that Nosayamen Iyalekhue, 33, and Esogie Osawaru, 27, had been charged with wire fraud. A complaint filed in court last week alleges that at least 11 different victims wired more than $400,000 to the men over three years.

Prosecutors claim Iyalekhue used his former position as a TD Bank teller to access accounts using other names, such as “Jude Ekanem” and “Milk Anthony.”

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After opening accounts with false foreign passports, Iyalekhue and Osawaru then allegedly used various schemes to convince victims to send money to those accounts before quickly withdrawing the money, often repeating the scam "multiple times during a single day,” according to the complaint.

Though Iyalekhue lost his job with TD Bank after security officials became aware that he was improperly accessing accounts in July 2019, the men continued the scams using accounts opened at several banks around the state, prosecutors said in the complaint.

A TD Bank spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment.

Jane Peachy, a public defender assigned to represent Iyalekhue, declined to comment on the specific allegations. She said the court document filed by prosecutors contain "no suggestion that my client was the one actually contacting the purported victims.”

A lawyer representing Osawaru could not immediately be reached.

The men, who were living in Massachusetts, were arrested Friday in Providence, according to the office of United States Attorney Andrew E. Lelling. They were detained after appearing in court, officials said.

Some of the schemes involved online romances, and Lelling’s office said the men also wrongly collected unemployment insurance meant to help people who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Osawaru allegedly cashed a $10,710 check from an unemployment insurance company in the name of a Washington resident on May 19. The victim told investigators he had not applied for unemployment benefits and did not know Osawaru, according to the complaint filed in court.

Another person from Wyandotte, Michigan sent more than $82,000 to accounts owned by Iyalekhue and Osawaru between October 2018 and March 2019 after forming an online relationship with a man who claimed he lived on an oil rig, according to the court document.

Iyalekhue was previously arrested by Dedham police on Feb. 24 after an employee at an Eastern Bank branch in the city alerted police as Iyalekhue attempted to withdraw money, according to the complaint. Prosecutors allege that the money came from an elderly woman in Scurry, Texas who believed she was helping a man pay for customs fees.

Both men face up to 20 years in prison if convicted, along with as much as three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to to $250,000 or twice any amount they are found to have taken from victims.

The Better Business Bureau, along with state and federal authorities, has received numerous reports of scams meant to take advantage of the confusion caused by the novel coronavirus.

Some people have received calls or texts about phony stimulus checks. Others have been scammed into buying COVID-19 remedies and at-home test kits that are not proven to treat or test for the virus. The most common scams involve online orders that never arrive.

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Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has encouraged consumers to be wary when making purchases, and to file complaints about regulation violations like price gouging.



Abigail Feldman can be reached at abigail.feldman@globe.com.