Israel indicts immigrants accused of posing as CEOs to steal from companies

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Israel's state prosecutor indicted four new immigrants from France on Wednesday for allegedly running a major international scam, impersonating company executives and costing five European companies about 9.1 million euros, or over $10 million.

The companies that lost money included German electronics retailer MediaMarkt, Belgian electronics company Eldi, European supermarket chain Cora, multinational perfume chain ICI Paris XL and Dutch hardware store owner Intergamma, according to the indictment.

About two dozen other companies were also entangled in the case, including candy maker Mars, high fashion company Chanel, Italian athletic clothing retailer Diadora, beer brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev, and car manufacturers Kia Motors and Toyota, though not all the companies fell for the trick, according to the indictment.

The case suggests that the so-called fake CEO scam is still thriving in Israel, where the man widely credited with pioneering the technique, Gilbert Chikli, continues to live openly, evading French attempts to arrest him.

Chikli is not suspected in the current case. The French-born defendants were identified as Henri Omessi, Daniel Michael Allon, Jeremy Lalloum and Mordechai Lellouche. They appeared at a court hearing on Wednesday. Rotem Tubul, a lawyer for Omessi, said her client and the other defendants pleaded not guilty.

"Because it involves evidence from many countries around the world, there are clear difficulties in handling this case in Israel, and it is doubtful whether it will be possible to overcome them," said Liya Felus, an attorney for Allon.

Israeli prosecutors says the immigrants collected information on European companies, including names of company employees and details on vendors with which they did business.

Then, according to prosecutors, they created fake email accounts to send forged documents to an employee in charge of finances, presenting themselves as a CEO or representative of a vendor. They would then instruct the employee to send money to a new "clearing firm" used by the vendor. In reality, the clearing firms were shell companies with bank accounts controlled by the defendants.

In one scam that took place in November and December, according to Wednesday's indictment, defendants impersonated an executive of German electronics giant Bosch and emailed an executive of Eldi, telling him that Bosch had begun to work with a new clearing firm and asking him to update his records with the firm's new bank account information.

Later, Eldi transferred 794,175.70 euros owed to Bosch to the shell company's bank account at PKO Bank Polski, Poland's largest bank.

In another scam, according to prosecutors, defendants impersonated an employee of Swedish home appliance company Electrolux, and tricked German electronics retailer MediaMarkt to into sending them more than 1 million euros.

Defendants also allegedly impersonated the chief financial officer of Mars -- the manufacturer of M&Ms and Snickers candy -- and convinced supermarket chain Cora to send 322,264.70 euros owed to Mars to their bank account instead. Meanwhile, the defendants allegedly impersonated a Cora representative and tried to convince Mars that the money transfer was delayed for technical reasons.

In the biggest single scam, the defendants, allegedly impersonating an employee of Chanel, convinced ICI Paris XL to transfer nearly 5.5 million euros to an account at a Slovakian branch of the Bulgarian bank UniCredit Bulbank.

In March, two Italian-born immigrants, Enzo Bondi and Yitzhak Sonino, were allegedly recruited to expand the con to entrap companies in Italy. The prosecutor indicted them in a separate case for attempting -- but failing -- to steal money from Diners Club Italia and other companies.

It is unclear how the defendants got the money from their European bank accounts to Israel. One defendant tried to launder some of the ill-gained money by depositing sums of cash into a currency exchange business, and in turn, an employee of the business tried to deposit the money in smaller amounts into the defendant's and others' bank accounts, but each time, Israeli banks rejected the money as suspicious, prosecutors say.

On the morning of May 2, a French media report about Israel-based scammers targeting companies in France was "brought to the defendants' attention," according to the indictment. Three minutes later, the three defendants allegedly began taking apart hard drives and destroying the computers used in the scam.

That same day, police raided the defendants' office in Netanya, a seaside Israeli city home to a large French immigrant population, following a nearly six-month undercover investigation that included video surveillance inside the office.