Cybercrime car wash: auto dealer convicted of laundering $5.7m in stolen money

A car dealer based in the US has been sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison for using his business to launder money stolen by a Ghanaian gang that ran romance and business email compromise (BEC) scams, raking in millions from unsuspecting victims.

Freeman Celvin, 48, residing in East Orange, New Jersey, was found guilty by a federal court on seven counts of money laundering and fraud on behalf of the Enterprise, the nickname given by the authorities to the shadowy online group he worked for.

Between 2014 and 2021, the Enterprise targeted elderly and vulnerable men and women in the US, who were tricked through SMS, emails, and dating websites into believing they were in an actual relationship and conned out of their life savings.

The other wing of the Enterprise gang focused on deceiving American businesses into wiring it money by posing as employees through the use of faked or spoofed email accounts. Third-party contractors doing business with the target firms were also impersonated to achieve the same end.

“Freeman Celvin used an auto business in New Jersey as a front to launder millions of dollars in fraud proceeds to scam artists in Ghana,” said US Attorney Damian Williams. “The online scams perpetrated by Celvin’s partners in Ghana were lucrative and callous, as they targeted vulnerable, elderly men and women and tricked them into transferring their life savings to the defendant, who then took his laundering fee and sent the money abroad.”

Fingers in many pies

Celvin was found to be controlling at least eight bank accounts between 2016 and 2021, through which he laundered $5.7 million before the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) apprehended him. He now joins his accomplices Fred Asante and Lord Aning in jail, the two having been handed nine- and two-year terms respectively earlier in 2022.

Announcing the verdict, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) said: “Celvin received fraud proceeds from victims of the Enterprise in personal as well as business bank accounts for his company Freeman Autos. The defendant also received fraud proceeds from other US-based members of the Enterprise, either by wire transfer or cash deliveries.”

Celvin took his cut in the form of a percentage fee before sending the money abroad to Enterprise members in Ghana, after using his shell business to launder the cash by using it to purchase cars and other goods.

“The defendant’s transactions had the appearance of legitimate business transactions,” said the DoJ. “This trade-based money-laundering scheme was designed to obscure the origin of the fraud proceeds as well as the identity of the ultimate beneficiaries of these schemes.”