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United States v. Alaka

July 27, 2010


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 08 CR 151-3-Elaine E. Bucklo, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Flaum, Circuit Judge.


Before FLAUM, WOOD, and EVANS, Circuit Judges.

Defendant-appellant Billi Alaka participated in a conspiracy to steal identifying information from customers of Washington Mutual bank and use it to make fraudulent transfers from their accounts. Alaka pleaded guilty to being a part of this conspiracy, but disputed the extent of his participation during his sentencing hearing. The district court found him responsible for the entire loss caused by the operation. Appellant claims that this decision amounted to clear error because much of the damage was not foreseeable to him. We now affirm.

I. Background

Defendant-appellant Billi Alaka pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiring to traffic and use one or more unauthorized access devices to obtain things of value aggregating $1000 or more, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1029(b)(2). The conspiracy sought to defraud Washington Mutual Bank ("WaMu") and its customers by using stolen account information to make unauthorized withdrawals. The individuals involved in the conspiracy were Alaka, Inyang Tomita, Jelil Adams, and James Arikpo. Arikpo worked at Washington Mutual and had access to personal account information. Tomita persuaded Arikpo to provide the customer account information to him for a fee. Tomita, Adams, and Alaka then used the customer data to generate fake identification featuring the name and personal details of a known WaMu account holder next to a photograph of a conspirator, open fraudulent accounts on behalf of the customers, or establish online access to the real accounts without notifying their owners. Appellant and his co-conspirators used these methods to siphon money out of the target accounts via online transfers, counterfeit checks, and withdrawals where a conspirator pretended to be the account owner.

At sentencing, the government contended that the conspiracy caused a total loss of $267,227. The district court agreed, holding Alaka, Arikpo, and Tomita each responsible for the full scope of the scheme. Alaka now argues that evidence ties him only to discrete withdrawals amounting to about $100,000, and that he could not reasonably foresee the remainder of the transactions. Thus, while Alaka admits responsibility for the loss attributable to unauthorized withdrawals he personally made and the withdrawals made by Tomita while Alaka was present, he denies responsibility for any loss associated with online transfers and counterfeit checks.

At Alaka's sentencing hearing, the government relied on appellant's own post-arrest statements and the testimony of United States Secret Service Special Agent Brian Speedy. Agent Speedy described the investigation into the conspiracy and the individual transactions that comprised it. With respect to losses borne by individual account holders injured by the scheme, his testimony established the following:

Eva Lichtenberg: James Arikpo accessed Lichtenberg's account, leading to a loss of $32,300 through several methods of withdrawal. One online bill payment was made from her account to a Citi Mastercard held in the names of Jillian Campione and Travis Tolle. The government subsequently found a fake ID with Alaka's photograph and the name "Travis Tolle." There was also an online transfer and an online bill payment from the Lichtenberg account to an account in the name of David Butler, which one of the co-conspirators admitted to opening. The government was able to trace money that flowed into the Butler account through several other accounts and eventually to Alaka, who admitted withdrawing the funds and giving them to Adams.

Carol Krashen: A phone call was made to transfer money from Krashen's account to another account under the same name at Washington Mutual. A counterfeit check was then written in the amount of $65,100. This check was deposited into a bank account in New York under the name Nova Depalois. Agent Speedy did not testify to any direct connections between the conspiracy and this check at the sentencing hearing. However, the government contends, and Alaka does not contest, that this account had been accessed by Arikpo prior to the loss.

Doug McMillian: McMillian incurred a loss of $16,514.47 through online transfers. One of the transfers went to an account under the name David Butler. Jelil Adams opened this account and used it to initiate a series of transfers that culminated in some of the money appearing in an account owned by Alaka.

David Williams: Williams lost $14,912.66 from his WaMu account through online transfers and bill payments. Initially, someone transferred $35,600 from Williams' genuine account to another one fraudulently created in his name. The perpetrators then sent online checks totaling $20,500 from that dummy account to an account at Fifth Third Bank under the name "Il Sin." Alaka was photographed accessing the Il Sin account at Fifth Third Bank.

Brian Adams: Adams's account had a loss of $9,800 from two counterfeit checks. One of the checks was returned, but the other went through and was deposited in a TCF account belonging to James White, Jr. On another occasion, Alaka used a fake ID bearing his picture and the name "James White, Jr." to withdraw $4500 from a Washington Mutual account. In his post-arrest statement, Alaka also admitted to using the personal identification information for James White, Jr. to open a separate account at a different, unspecified bank.

Ray Anthony White: White's account had a loss of $2,800 from an online check that went to pay off a Master Card held in the names of Jillian Campione and Travis Tolle. This same credit card was implicated with transfers from the ...

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