US prosecutors have charged 80 people over an international Internet romance scam that defrauded victims, many of them elderly women, of at least $6m.
The scam was run by two Nigerian men in the Los Angeles area who had help from associates in Nigeria and other countries, federal officials say. They operated fake online romances that solicited money from “vulnerable” women.
In one 2016 operation, a Japanese woman sent a total of $200,000 borrowed from friends and relatives to a “US army captain stationed in Syria” she met on an international site for digital pen pals. The fake military man, "Terry Garcia”, told the woman, referred to in court documents as “FK”, that he was stationed in Syria and had a plan to smuggle diamonds out of the country.
To avoid confrontation, he told her he could not use the phone while stationed in the country.
She was virtually introduced to his “associates”, including one who said he was a “Red Cross diplomat”, in the couple’s pursuit of the fake diamond smuggling. Additional requests for shipping costs and other details in the fake heist kept coming.
"FK estimates that she made 35 to 40 payments over the 10 months that she had a relationship with Garcia,” a federal criminal complaint says. “During that time, the fraudster(s) emailed her as many as 10 to 15 times each day, and Garcia was asking her to make the payments, so she kept paying to accounts in Turkey, the UK and the US.”
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Seventeen people have been arrested so far. Investigators say two key suspects living in Southern California oversaw the full operation, which attempted an additional $40m in theft. They were among the 17 arrested, but dozens of co-conspirators are still on the run.
All defendants face charges of conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to launder money, and aggravated identity theft. Some will also face fraud and money laundering charges.
"We believe this is one of the largest cases of its kind in US history," US Attorney Nick Hanna said of the operation.
He told CNN that the online pleas for money weren’t limited to romance, and included schemes targeting businesses, including impersonating employees.
"In some cases, the victims thought they were communicating with US servicemen stationed overseas, when in fact, they were emailing with conmen," Mr Hanna said. "Some of the victims in this case lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in this way."