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At least $1 million funneled to Nigeria from small Alabama town in big-money scam

By Carol Robinson - AL.com - 16-10-28
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Jacinta Derby, left, Edward Ford, center, and Debra Shields, right, are charged with theft of property after a complex investigation of a complex set of cons. (Jefferson County Jail)

You've heard of Nigerian scammers? Well police believe some are based right here in small-town Alabama.

It's a complex investigation of a complex set of cons, but Adamsville authorities say a trio of people in that Jefferson County city helped bilk hundreds of thousands of dollars from unsuspecting Americans and wired the cash to criminals - perhaps even terrorists -- in Nigeria.

Adamsville police first became aware of wrongdoing in September of 2014 when a man in Chippewa County, Minnesota filed a report with sheriff's deputies there about a potential scam. The victim told investigators he learned he had won a $100,000 lottery, but in order to collect that money he had to fork over $2,462.50. He did so via a Walmart MoneyGram, and the recipient was to a woman named Jacinta Girrado Derby, a 57-year-old Adamsville woman.

Det. Rick Whitfield said they looked into the case, but there wasn't immediately anything that could be done. They kept an eye out for any other similar complaints, but there weren't any.

That changed in February 2016. This time, Adamsville police received a call from the Washington County Sheriff's Office, also in Minnesota. A woman there reported she was selling a piece of furniture on Craigslist, and that a buyer had offered her asking price.

The buyer, Whitfield said, deposited the agreed-upon price into a supposed PayPal account and included $950 for shipping costs. He then asked the victim to send him that $950 shipping money back to him, which she did from her own bank account via a MoneyGram picked up by Derby. "Is she the main culprit? At that point we didn't know," Whitfield said.

But they were determined to find out. They launched an investigation to figure out if there was a crime, and if so, did that crime happen in Adamsville?

Later that same month, another complaint came in - this time from Port Neches, Texas. Whitfield said a man selling a motorcycle on Craiglist found a buyer, who was willing to pay him the full amount plus $950 for shipping. Again, the money was supposed deposited in what appeared to be a legitimate PayPal account and that seller, also, was asked to front the shipping money from his personal bank account to send via a Walmart MoneyGram to a man named Edward Ford, also in Adamsville.

The seller, however, became suspicious. "The buyer was in California but they wanted him to send the money to Alabama?" Whitfield said. "He didn't send the money, and he contacted us."

In March, a young single mother met with Adamsville detectives and said she feared her life, and her son's life, was in danger. She told authorities she had become involved with a man over Facebook, a man who supposedly worked on an off-shore oil rig and needed her help handling his pay. He would send her money via MoneyGram, which she was instructed to then wire to someone else.

Over a period of only about six months, the woman had wired an estimated $500,000 to $600,000, usually to a recipient in Nigeria. "She was a very naïve woman," Whitfield said.

Investigators looked to see if there was any connection in that case to the one they were building against Derby and Ford, but didn't find any apparent link. "We interviewed her and she denied any association with them," he said.

In June, Adamsville police were contacted by a victim in Washington State who was selling a couch on Craigslist. Again, the woman was told the price of the couch plus $650 for shipping was deposited in a PayPal account, and $650 was to be wired to a person in Adamsville - this time a woman named Debra Shields. She sent the money, but was then told that wasn't enough and was asked to send more.

Instead, she called Adamsville police who told her to file a report there, and they would handle things from the Alabama end.

As the investigation continued, they received yet another call from Bosque County in Texas. A woman was selling a tractor and ended up sending $1,200 via MoneyGram in shipping fees only to realize she had been scammed.

The problem, Whitfield said, was that the PayPal accounts were fake but looked eerily legitimate. So the victims, thinking they had that money sitting in the "PayPal" account, used their own money to wire the buyer shipping costs. The "buyer," in all of the cases, ended up asking for even more in shipping costs and that's when the sellers realized they'd been had. Some realized it immediately, he said, but one sent more than $2,000 of his own money before he realized he was being scammed.

Adamsville's investigation showed that Derby, Shields, 54, and Ford, 64 - described in transactions as "pickup agents" - all lived within two blocks of each other in Adamsville. Detectives sought, and received, surveillance videotape from the Adamsville Walmart that showed all three sending and receiving MoneyGrams on multiple occasions. The videos show Derby by herself, and with either Ford or Shields.

Once subpoenaed and received, Walmart spreadsheets of the transactions by the trio showed that every time a MoneyGram was received by one of them, another was sent the very same day for nearly the same amount - minus their fee which was roughly $20 to $30 per transaction. In all, Whitfield said, Derby sent at least $500,000 to Nigeria, so much that Walmart no longer allowed her to use the money-wiring service. That's when, Whitfield said, she enlisted neighbors Ford and Shields to help her as "pickup agents" to "make a little extra money."

Shields also sent money to Nigeria. Ford, Whitfield said, apparently kept most, if not all, of the money without sending it to anyone.

Detectives met with the FBI and with Jefferson County District Attorney's Office. He said federal investigators said they would assist in any way possible, but that it was Adamsville's case and that it would be virtually impossible to track the money once it left the U.S.

The District Attorney's Office issued felony theft of property warrants for all three. Derby was arrested Sept. 23, and is out of jail on $15,000 bond. Shields was arrested Sept. 24, and is out of jail on $5,000 bond. Ford was arrested Oct. 9, and he is out of jail on $10,000.

"We interviewed each one of the separately and one of the main questions I asked them was 'Did you not feel or sense something wasn't right about this?' And in each case, the answer was yes, yet they continued," Whitfield said.

Derby told investigators she was recruited into the business by another woman, who is now dead. She also gave investigators the names of four people for whom she worked, and each one of them had people in Nigeria to whom they were also sending money. Some of the names she provided matched the names of the "buyers" given to police by the out-of-state victims, Whitfield said.

Whitfield and other detectives carried out search warrants at the homes of Derby and Shields, confiscating computers and phones that are undergoing computer forensic analysis. They also have names of other people recruited by Derby, and those investigations are ongoing.

Interestingly, he said, Derby, Ford and Shields all said they did not know the young woman that told Adamsville police she feared for her life, which backed up her own story that she wasn't working with that group and didn't know them. It appears to just be a coincidence that she was part of a similar scam and also lives in Adamsville and shows the scope of such cons. "These people are just recruiting people everywhere," Whitfield said. "You always see these 'work from home' advertisements. I know it's a cliché, but if seems too good to be true, it probably is."

That woman wasn't arrested because police believe she was didn't realize what she was doing was wrong. "We see her as a victim as well," Whitfield said. "We just told her to cut ties. They had been bluffing her with threats into continuing."

Though the pay for "pickup agents" seems nominal, Whitfield said it adds up when you're talking about millions of dollars. However, it's not likely they were getting rich and, if they were, they weren't living like it. "If you saw where Derby lives, you wouldn't believe a million dollars had passed through there," he said.

Adamsville police said their gut tells them this money was going to support terrorist activities. "Can we prove that? Not at this time," Whitfield said. "But we can't help but feel like that's a good possibility because of the nature of how the transactions were done, the sophistication behind it, the way people were recruited, where the money was going and the day in which we live."

The hardest part of the case has been getting victims to come forward. They all live out of state because that's the only way the scam could work since it deals with delivery fees. He said people need to be more careful when carrying out sales and other transactions online. "Before you send money to somebody, make sure that you have done your research and it's legitimate," he said. "If you are a victim, then report it. Don't be embarrassed, be mad. Because if these few people had not come forward, they would still be out there collecting money and sending it overseas."

The investigation is still ongoing and how far up the hierarchy they will go still remains to be seen. Already, however, Adamsville police deem it a major success. "Our goal was to shut down this operation in Adamsville," he said, "and we've done that."

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