SANTA ANA, Calif. – An Orange County woman has been charged in a six-count federal grand jury indictment alleging she laundered money directly sent from fraud victims who were tricked into sending the funds to financial accounts she controlled rather than to the victims’ intended recipients, the Justice Department announced today.
Serena Lieu, 55, of Westminster, is charged with three counts of money laundering and three counts of engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity. A federal grand jury returned the indictment on Tuesday.
Lieu was arrested without incident on Wednesday morning. She pleaded not guilty to the charges at her arraignment on Wednesday afternoon in United States District Court in Santa Ana and an April 11 trial date was scheduled in this matter. She was released from custody on $50,000 bond.
According to court documents, in 2019, law enforcement learned that a Lieu-controlled bank account received a wire transfer of $103,350 from a business email compromise (BEC) victim in the Dallas area. BEC is a scam that targets companies and individuals who perform legitimate transfer-of-funds requests. Cybercriminals using social engineering or malware impersonate one of the people involved in those money transfers to make the victim send the money to a criminal-controlled bank account. Once the fraud is detected, it frequently is too late to get the money back since the funds have been quickly moved to other bank accounts or used to buy cryptocurrency.
During a May 2019 interview, FBI agents advised Lieu – who has opened 11 bank accounts at seven separate financial institutions since 2017 – that she was moving fraud proceeds in and out of her various bank accounts. FBI agents then gave her a “money mule” warning letter, which she signed. A money mule is someone who transfers or moves illegally acquired money on behalf of someone else.
Despite the warning, Lieu allegedly continued trafficking fraud proceeds. Between July 2019 and April 2021, Lieu allegedly received more than $1.8 million into various bank accounts. These funds came directly from fraud victims who were deceived into sending the funds to Lieu-controlled bank accounts, rather than to the victims’ intended recipients, court documents state. After receiving this money, Lieu allegedly quickly withdrew or transferred it to various individuals or entities, including by converting the funds into cryptocurrency.
The indictment specifically alleges that Lieu transferred more than $560,000 from bank accounts she controlled to accounts at different banks and to Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange platform, from July 2020 to February 2021.