The chief executive of an Iranian online financial services company pleaded guilty Tuesday to fraud conspiracy charges that federal prosecutors in Minnesota said involved millions of dollars in transactions violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Seyed Sajjad Shahidian, the 33-year-old founder of Payment24, admitted Tuesday to conducting 21 illegal transactions with Minnetonka-based Digital River using a $1.8 million PayPal account acquired with fake residency documents. Citing records obtained from PayPal, federal prosecutors said Shahidian also controlled a $6 million PayPal account acquired under similar fraudulent circumstances. Digital River, meanwhile, has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
Under the scheme, Shahidian’s Payment24 used fake passports and other fraudulent documents to set up online payment accounts its customers could then use to do business with U.S. companies that were otherwise forbidden by U.S. sanctions on Iran.
One advertised package of services offered by Payment24 included a PayPal account, an “ID card and address receipt,” one remote IP address within the UAE and a Visa gift card for PayPal verification purposes. Its website also told customers that “as long as the American sanctions continue to be in place, it is always advisable to create your accounts with a foreign identity.”
Payment24 had about 40 employees and offices in Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan, Iran. It claimed to have brought millions of dollars of foreign currency into Iran and prosecutors say it illegally helped customers buy and export computer software, software licenses and computer services from U.S. companies.
Shahidian entered Tuesday’s plea via teleconference under measures taken to avoid the spread of COVID-19 in federal courts. He appeared roughly one month after being extradited from the United Kingdom following a November 2018 arrest.
A federal public defender representing Shahidian was not immediately available for comment.
The firm’s chief operating officer, Vahid Vali, 33, is also charged, as is Payment24. The FBI’s Minneapolis division investigated the case.
U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz set an Oct. 15 sentencing date for Shahidian. Under the terms of Shahidian’s plea agreement, he faces up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and a supervised release term of three years. Shahidian and the government have not reached an agreement as to a recommended sentence.