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California woman charged as “money mule” in online fraud that stole over $360,000 from Minnesotans

1/10/2018 1:24:53 PM

For Immediate Release

SAINT PAUL – A California woman has been charged for her role as a “money mule” who aided and abetted global email scams that stole more than $360,000 from three Minnesotans. A money mule is someone who receives and transfers stolen money as part of a fraud scheme.

Ling Zhou, age 51 (DOB: 7/18/1966), of Santa Clara, was charged with aiding and abetting felony theft by swindle in Ramsey County District Court.  She made her first court appearance on January 5, with her next court appearance on February 15.

The case was charged by the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and is the result of an investigation by the Minnesota Commerce Fraud Bureau and Lakeville Police, with support from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“A fraudulent email that victimized a Minnesotan was the starting point for this investigation, which then uncovered a sophisticated global cybercrime scheme,” said Commerce Commissioner Jessica Looman. “By following the flow of money, the Commerce Fraud Bureau determined that Zhou was systematically laundering stolen funds obtained through online fraud and forwarding these funds to overseas accounts.” 

“This case is an unfortunate reminder that fraudulent acts manifest in many forms, leaving unsuspecting victims in their wake,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. “I want to thank the Minnesota Commerce Fraud Bureau for their diligent investigation that allowed our fraud prosecutor to bring charges in this case. We will work to bring justice for the victims.”

The Commerce Department website offers /commerce/consumers/your-money/online-fraud/index.jsptips to protect yourself against online scams that try to lure you into sending money. 

According to the criminal complaint:

In September 2016, a Minnesota man was closing on a real estate transaction in which he was the buyer. He received wiring instructions by email from a person who appeared to be employed by the title company involved in closing the real estate transaction. He followed these instructions and wired $205,704 to a Bank of America account.

At the scheduled closing two days later, he learned that the email he received was fraudulent. The title company did not send the email to him, nor did it receive his funds.

The investigation determined that, while the email with the wiring instructions had a display name and email address that corresponded to the title company, the email’s header information actually showed a different sender.

The investigation traced the Bank of America account to Zhou, who had opened it in 2010 under the name of Happy Ocean, Inc. Bank records show that the victim’s funds were deposited into the account on September 28, 2016. A series of withdrawals was made over the next few days, totaling nearly the entire amount that had been deposited. These included a $98,000 wire transfer to an account at First Gulf Bank in the United Arab Emirates, wire transfers to a Citibank account and another Bank of America account, and several teller transfers and cash withdrawals.

Surveillance video from one of the cash withdrawals in Cupertino, California, shows that the person withdrawing the funds was an Asian female with shoulder-length black hair with a part on the right side. This matched Zhou’s appearance.

Zhou was questioned on December 14, 2016.  She said she would contact her cousin, who lives in China and who she claimed operated Happy Ocean with her. The next day, she sent an email to an investigator explaining that her cousin was referring her inquiry to his business partner, “Gerald Moretti,” who was supposedly a U.S. citizen currently in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.  

Zhou claimed Moretti was trying to get more details from the person who deposited the money. However, records obtained from Google show that on September 29, 2016, Zhou had received an email from an address with display name “Moretti G.A.” that included instructions on where to wire the funds. Telephone records also show extensive texting between Zhou and Moretti, including a text from Zhou in which she suggested how she would respond to law enforcement’s inquiry and a reply with Moretti’s approval.

The investigation uncovered two additional Minnesota victims of online fraud involving Zhou.

Zhou’s bank records showed that a resident of Ramsey County sent a total of $90,000 to Zhou’s Bank of America account and her Wells Fargo account. The victim believed he was sending money to “Teresa Hill,” who told him she was involved in the gem industry and was having trouble in Dubai. At her request, he sent money to the bank accounts she designated, believing she needed it to leave Dubai.

Bank records show that Zhou rewired these funds to an account in South Africa in the name of Fuhad Sholeye, an account in Dubai in the name of Ignatius Usijhu, and an account in South Africa in the name of Nurudeen Lekan Saka.

An additional victim was a man from Melrose, Minnesota, who met a person on Craigslist who identified herself as “Katie Henshaw.” She claimed to be searching for love and a soulmate.  The victim believed he developed a relationship with “Katie Henshaw,” who sent a picture of herself and claimed to live in Sioux Falls.  

“Katie Henshaw” told the victim that she had traveled to Malaysia and overbought some gemstones as part of her business, for which she owed money to Malaysian customs. At her request, the victim made multiple deposits, totaling $86,000, in a Wells Fargo account in the name of Happy Ocean, Inc. Soon after these deposits, Zhou transferred the funds to another account she had and then wired money to an account in the name of Fuhad Sholeye in South Africa.

Zhou was interviewed and admitted to a relationship with “Moretti” and “Sholeye,” in which she had been asked to lie several times on their behalf.

Media Contact
Ross Corson
Director of Communications
Minnesota Department of Commerce
p: 651-539-1463 | c: 651-368-5050 | ross.corson@state.mn.us

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