By Mike Donoghue
BURLINGTON — An Orlando, Fla. woman, who officials say is part of a large-scale international fake computer service renewal scam that targeted various victims including at least one Vermont resident, pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Burlington on Tuesday on a charge of conspiring to commit wire fraud.
The FBI in Burlington said Neha Junaid, 28, targeted elderly people by claiming in personal emails to be part of the “Geek Squad”– the business name for a computer service group associated with Best Buy, a national chain retailer.
FBI Special Agent Leah Bogdanowicz said the wide-ranging investigation covers money laundering, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, computer fraud and computer fraud conspiracy. The FBI arrested Junaid in Orlando last month on a federal warrant from Vermont based initially on a criminal complaint filed by Bogdanowicz.
Bogdanowicz said the FBI has identified more than 500 victims who collectively suffered over $3 million in actual losses and over $3.5 million in attempted losses from scams similar to the scheme that the victims she has found in Vermont, Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina faced.
She said she has determined 100 of the victims sent money to Junaid’s bank accounts. Those 100 victims, including at least one Chittenden County resident, have lost at least $225,000 since August 2018, Bogdanowicz said.
The vast majority of the victims are considered elderly by the FBI because they are over 60 years old, Bogdanowicz said.
Federal Magistrate Judge Kevin J. Doyle agreed to continue Junaid on release conditions imposed in Florida after her arrest. He did strike a curfew condition. Her court-appointed defense lawyer John Mabie of Brattleboro said she has surrendered her passport.
Junaid spoke in English for much of the hearing, but used a Hindi interpreter for some of the legal issues, including when Doyle read the criminal indictment.
She has been most recently working full-time at a Days Inn in Florida as a guest service agent. Between January 2019 and January 2021, she worked in the food and beverage industry.
Under questioning from Doyle, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugenia A.P. Cowles said the investigation is elaborate with extensive bank and financial records. She also noted there were statements involving Junaid from 100 of the 500 witnesses.
Mabie asked for 90 days to review the investigation and consider pre-trial motions.
Cowles said in addition to the conditions of no contact with witnesses, she asked Doyle to prohibit contact with Nasir “Sonu” Hussain, 30, also of Orlando who is one of the main targets in the Vermont-based investigation.
A federal grand jury in Burlington formerly indicted Junaid last week on the single felony charge that she and others conspired to commit wire fraud in Vermont and elsewhere between August 2018 and September 2023 when she was arrested. The charge maintains a scheme was developed to obtain money and property by false means and fraudulent pretenses. The indictment also claims some false statements and writings were transmitted across state lines.
Junaid is one of four people from India that have now been charged by federal authorities in Vermont as part of the international scam.
The FBI in Burlington said the scheme worked in the following way:
An unidentified cyber actor or actors sent an email to an unsuspecting victim claiming to be a member of the “Geek Squad.” In the case involving the Vermont victim it was to confer about the annual $329 renewal fee for an accounting software package. The victim called the number on the email, and spoke with a cyber actor to discuss reversing the renewal charge.
The cyber actor, pretending to be a member of the Geek Squad, instructed the victim to download software to his or her computer, which allowed for remote access and remote control of the computer software by the actor. The cyber actor then directs the victim to log into his or her banking system using the remote system.
It was shortly after the cyber actor took control of the bank account that a $25,000 deposit was made into the victim’s checking account. The victim was unaware the $25,000 had been moved from the victim’s savings account. The cyber actor then provides some false stories and claims that cause the victim to do multiple banking steps and the conspirators are able to steal from the victim, the FBI said.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported Junaid entered the United States in July 2017 using a J-1 Visa, which is provided to international individuals who come on a cultural exchange program. Junaid claimed her exchange program was through the International Institute of Hotel Management, which is a school based in India.
Junaid’s income since August 2018 never came from any paychecks, but rather moderately sized payments through Zelle — a mobile, banking app — averaging $1,500 each, the FBI said. Each of the names associated with the payments corresponded with the names of the 100 victims, the FBI said. Within a week after each deposit, cash withdrawals or payments sent to India would happen, Bogdanowicz said.
The funds were broken down into small amounts for transfers to avoid federal reporting regulations, according to Bogdanowicz, who was a former senior manager in the risk assurance division of PricewaterhouseCoopers before joining the FBI.
She said the cash withdrawals are believed to be Junaid’s commission for her work in the scheme.
Junaid was initially linked to an apartment on Sherman Avenue in Jersey City, N.J. when she opened bank accounts there in August and October 2018, the FBI said.
Investigation revealed that some of the other suspects in the International fraud scheme also used the same apartment address in Jersey City, N.J., the FBI said. Investigation revealed they were either current or former students involved in the hotel management program sent from India, the FBI said.
Among the people linked to the apartment Hussain, 30, also of Orlando who is one of the main targets in the Vermont-based investigation. He has been in custody since his arrest on May 16 when he arrived on an international flight at JFK International Airport in New York City, the FBI said.
Hussain is suspected of being a “money mule handler” for the students from India, Bogdanowicz said.
Junaid has said she later moved to an apartment on Conroy Road in Orlando by 2019 and Hussain was her roommate, the FBI reported. More bank accounts were opened there to help facilitate the fraud scheme, Bogdanowicz said
Jailhouse records show Junaid and Hussain spoke about 85 times for about 11 hours between June 23 and July 6 this year and included conversations about sending and receiving money, the FBI said. They also communicated through “WhatsApp,” a common messaging platform before his arrest, the FBI said.
Hussain is 1 of 3 co-defendants named in a separate criminal complaint in Burlington filed by the FBI for knowingly conspiring to commit wire fraud in Vermont. He appeared in federal court in New York after his arrest and was ordered removed to Vermont.
Besides Hussain, also named were: Pradip Sau, 24, and Debalina Sen, 24, both of Orlando, Fla. court papers note.
Sau and Sen had reported separate addresses in Orlando, the FBI said, however the couple claimed to be husband and wife and were living nearby in Lady Lake, Fla. when the Sumter County Sheriff’s Department dealt with them in October 2022, court records show.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection report that Sau entered the United States in December 2018 and Sen arrived in May 2018, both using a J-1 Visa, which is provided to people who come on a cultural exchange program. Both claimed their exchange program was through the Guru Nanak Institute of Hotel Management, which is based in India.
The scheme in which Sau and Sen was involved in had more than 150 victims sending money to the bank accounts controlled by Sau and Sen, the FBI said. About $650,000 in losses to the couple were reported by victims between May 2019 and May 2023, the FBI said