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Global mail fraud network targeted by US authorities

[WASHINGTON] US justice authorities on Thursday unveiled a broad-based effort to dismantle global mass-mailing fraud operations that officials say cheat millions of people out of tens of millions of US dollars annually.

Officials announced criminal charges, economic sanctions, asset seizures and other actions aimed at companies and individuals based in Canada, France, Singapore, Turkey, India, the United States and other countries.

The scams followed a familiar pattern, according to the US Justice Department, which said "direct mailers" sent phony letters, frequently to the elderly, claiming the recipients had won cash or prizes that could be collected for processing fees.

Swiss and Singaporean-based outfits allegedly took in US$50 million to US$60 million annually on the back of fraudulent claims, some of which purportedly came from world famous psychics.

Among others, the effort targeted an Indian printing company which allegedly produced solicitation letters in bulk and a Canadian payments processing company which prosecutors say knowingly processed victims' checks, according to the Justice Department.

In a news conference, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch cited the case of Ercan Barka, 34, a resident of Turkey who was arrested early this month by US postal inspectors in New York as he prepared to board a plane and was later charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud.

Prosecutors say Barca's mailing campaigns had taken US$29 million from US victims since 2012.

"The companies and individuals named in these actions operated different parts of mass-mailing fraud schemes in different parts of the world," Ms Lynch said in prepared remarks. "But they all acted with the same malicious intent: to take advantage of elderly individuals and other vulnerable citizens."

As part of the efforts, the US Treasury Department said it had designated a Canadian payments processor, PacNet, which has a network of operations in Europe, Asia, Britain and Africa, as a transnational criminal organisation, effectively forcing it out of the US banking system and hampering its access to global financial networks.

The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which oversees US economic sanctions, also blacklisted 12 people and 24 entities across 18 countries who are suspected of being involved in or supporting PacNet's operations.

"PacNet has knowingly facilitated the fraudulent activities of its customers for many years and today's designations are aimed at shielding Americans and the nation's financial system from the large-scale, illicit money flows that are generated by these scams against vulnerable individuals," John Smith, Ofac's acting director, said in a statement.