TYLER, Texas (KETK) – 21 people have been charged for their roles in money laundering networks after a years-long investigation, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

According to court documents unsealed on Wednesday, the networks include those that laundered millions of dollars stolen from U.S. fraud victims through romance scams, business email compromises, technical support schemes and other fraud schemes.

“Protecting our greatest generation remains our number one priority,” U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas Brit Featherston said.

Featherston said the older generation is the number one targeted group for crimes involving money laundering schemes.

Officials with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and U.S. Secret Service said this announcement comes after a years-long effort that has become known as Operation Crypto Runner.

“The operation is intended to dismantle and disrupt networks that transact and transfer cryptocurrency on behalf of foreign fraud organizations,” said Nathaniel Kummerfeld, Assistant US Attorney and Deputy Chief for Complex Fraud and Public Corruption.

William Smarr, a special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service’s Dallas Field Office said since their efforts began in 2019, over $300 million of money laundering transactions have been disrupted by Operation Crypto Runner.

“These arrests are just the beginning,” Smarr said. “We are committed to bringing each of the remaining perpetrators to justice.”

Cryptocurrency is a digital or virtual currency, and Bitcoin is the most popular form.

“Let’s say a person transacts $1,000, buys Bitcoin, and then they can use that Bitcoin in different ways,” Kummerfeld said.

This is becoming increasingly popular with scammers, and it’s hard to trace.

“They use that for speed and their belief there’s a level of anonymous associated with it,” aid William Mack, Resident Agent in Charge Tyler Office, United States Secret Service.

As technology advances, the people trying to take your money are having to find new ways to con.

“The banks have gotten more sophisticated with their fraud analysis and fraud detection and they may flag that transaction,” said Kummerfeld.

That’s why experts are advising East Texans to know what crypto is and the signs of a scam.

“One is awareness and just being aware and having your antennas up, even if you’re initially meeting someone online. Being wary of discussions that turn into money, and also being aware of the pressure points,” said Mack.

Federal officials say to discuss what scams are with your family and friends, and if you fall victim, call your bank immediately and report it to your local law enforcement.

One of the schemes alleged in the 21 indictments include the 2020 case of Zenobia Walker, 65, of Temple Hills, Maryland. Walker, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to operate an unlicensed money transmitting business “was once a victim herself,” according to officials.

Walker was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison on Nov. 2 after pleading guilty of exchanging over $308,000 from the victims of romance scams between 2019 and 2020.

“Cybercrime has become an all too common way for foreign criminal actors to prey on Americans,” Thomas Noyes, the inspector in charge of the Postal Inspection Service’s Fort Worth Division said. “I commend the exceptional work of our law enforcement partners and emphasize our agency’s ongoing commitment to combatting fraud and money laundering schemes.”

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