Prosecutors are cracking down on online romance scams

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Phone screen of a dating app with the fake profile being peeled back to reveal a shadowy hacker figure

Photo illustration by Sarah Wadford/ABA Journal.

Based on his Chemistry.com dating profile, Paul Edward seemed like a catch. He was an Irishman, a father and had a good career working as a civil engineer in South Africa.

Or at least that’s what a South Carolina woman thought. The two connected online, and when Paul Edward shared with her that a worker was injured at the South Africa job site, she sent money to help, based on the belief her new man was responsible for associated costs.

Later, she learned Paul Edward was not from Ireland, he did not work as an engineer, and that was not his name. Instead, the person she communicated with was part of a romance scam. And she wasn’t the only target. It’s estimated that 60 women were scammed by this operation, which netted at least $2.3 million, according to a 2021 indictment filed in the Eastern District of North Carolina charging defendants with conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Defendant Samuel Ugberaese, a Nigerian national who at one point lived in Atlanta, is still at large, and that’s why the docket has few details of how the alleged victims were wooed, says Adam Hulbig, an assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case.

The indictment says the scam involved nine different U.S. bank accounts, which the victims used to deposit money for “Paul Edward.” And “Michael Alex.” And “Timothy Greene.” All were pseudonyms used in dating profiles.

Oluwadamilare Kolaogunbule, another defendant named in the indictment, who goes by the nickname “Dare,” is a U.S. citizen who also lived in Georgia. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering, and in March he was sentenced to serve 71 months in prison.

“No matter what the plea entry may be from Mr. Oluwadamilare Kolaogunbule, I want the court to know that I lent that money, and I had saved it for a new roof badly needed for my home!” a Utah woman, claiming to have been scammed as well, wrote in a letter to U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle, who presided over the case.

In 2020 and 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice website posted at least 10 news releases about separate indictments involving romance scams. In 2021, people reported losing a total of $547 million to the crimes, and that was an 80% increase over 2020, according to a 2022 Federal Trade Commission news release.

Hulbig thinks the numbers are greater than that because many romance scams go unreported. Trying to avoid judgment from peers is one reason, and blackmail from scammers is another. “In the beginning, the scammer tries to romance the victims. If they don’t get what they want, the tone may change to something more menacing,” he says.

Sometimes scammers use photos of famous people in their online dating profiles. “And that will blow their cover,” Hulbig says. Or not. He claims romance scammers seek signs of vulnerability in dating profiles.

“They don’t look at a dating website the same way you or I would,” Hulbig adds. “They’re looking to find the right people who fit the profiles they believe are the most likely to yield fruit down the road.”

Recently divorced or widowed women are frequent targets, say those who investigate, prosecute and defend federal charges that involve romance scams. They have different views about who’s doing the cons, however. Some say there’s an organized crime connection, while others think the scheming suitors work on their own.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to an overall increase in online scams in general. According to an analysis by the consumer credit reporting agency TransUnion, suspected digital fraud attempts increased 16.5% globally compared to the second quarters of 2020 and 2021. For romance scammers, COVID-19 offers a great excuse for not being able to meet someone in person, and many victims have been isolated from family and friends who might question a relationship’s validity.

Matthew J. Reynolds, a supervisory special agent with the FBI’s Economic Crimes Unit, encourages everyone who’s come into contact with an online Lothario—or a chatroom femme fatale—to report it on the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center website.

“Even if folks haven’t lost any money, and they’ve only been targets but figured out it was a scam—tell us, so we can better connect the dots, investigate, and help prosecute those committing these crimes and protect people down the road,” Reynolds says. He also notes that never being able to meet an online suitor in person is a significant red flag.

Too good to be true

One 2019 case filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California does involve some human contact—as well as a San Francisco hotel safe filled with pillows disguised as bags of cash.

A 58-year-old woman from San Mateo County, California, identified as “M.M.” in the indictment, around April 2018 met someone online who identified himself as “Allen Green.” He claimed to live in California too, but he said he was traveling in Bahrain. A few months later, M.M. was sending him money after he claimed he’d run into financial issues on the road.

The man’s identity is not known, but the government does know he was in Nigeria, according to a U.S. Department of Justice press release. In June 2018, another man, going by the name “Rashad Cosmos,” was introduced to M.M. He said he could provide her with money. “In advance of any such meeting, however, he told M.M. that she would have to pay him,” the indictment states.

“Rashad Cosmos” was really Franklin Efijemueh, and he lived in Lawrenceville, Georgia, according to the indictment. The two had an in-person meeting at a San Francisco hotel.

“He showed M.M. a safe and claimed that it contained large amounts of currency that could be cleaned and utilized. In reality, the safe’s contents consisted primarily of pillows,” the indictment reads.

The victim was instructed to bring cash to the meeting, which she did. She ultimately sent the scammers more than $100,000 in three wire transfers over a two-month span.

Christopher Morales, a San Francisco lawyer, represents Efijemueh. His client’s reference to cleaning money was made literally, not figuratively, Morales says. “It’s a little bit murky as to what was going on,” he added.

The woman continued to send “Allen Green” money until October 2018.

Efijemueh was charged with three counts of wire fraud, and the money judgment in the case is $119,200. He pleaded guilty to the charges in March, and a sentencing hearing is set for June.

“Scammers normally don’t get caught. The reason these guys got caught was they were silly enough to come to the Bay Area and meet with the person,” Morales says.

Morales also represents Kerry Kit Yee Tang, a San Francisco controller in her 40s who was indicted in 2021 on charges she stole $1.9 million from her employer. Morales says his client, who’s charged with bank fraud, gave all of the money to a romance scammer and tried to provide federal prosecutors with the person’s contact information. Morales says the prosecutors are not interested. He told the ABA Journal in May that Tang planned to enter a guilty plea later that month.

Another client stole $300,000 from her employer after meeting a romance scammer on the dating site eharmony. Morales says common targets are females in their 30s, 40s and 50s, though the FTC says targets who are 70 and over report the highest individual median losses from romance scams. “They’re single, lonely women with college educations and access to money,” he says.

When scammers discover a target doesn’t have any money, sometimes they try to use the person for other things, like money laundering and transporting illegal goods, according to John Lovell, an Atlanta criminal defense lawyer. He represented a single mother of limited means from Georgia who was tricked by a man she met online into mailing what the government said was fraudulently obtained money. He claimed to be a British engineer doing construction work in Africa.

The man also communicated with another woman, in California, who did give him money, Lovell adds. His client agreed to mail the California woman’s money to a third person who allegedly was in on the scam. Lovell communicated with California law enforcement on his client’s behalf, and she was not charged.

“I was able to gather evidence, including emails, and demonstrate to the investigator that she was duped,” says Lovell, who also represents the Eastern District of North Carolina defendant Kolaogunbule. Lovell would not comment on that case because it was ongoing.

Near, far, wherever you are

In the Northern District of Texas, former acting U.S. Attorney Prerak Shah in 2021 indicted 11 people for money laundering and wire fraud allegedly stemming from romance scams. Many of the older victims were widowed or divorced, and they were targeted through dating websites including Match.com and PlentyofFish, according to a Department of Justice news release. The defendants, whose cases are ongoing, allegedly got more than $340,000 from people they met online.

Shah, who’s now of counsel with the Houston office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, says many of the federal romance scam prosecutions came from the Department of Justice’s elder fraud initiative. U.S. attorneys are interested in charging people involved in romance scams if large amounts of money were taken, and they also consider the number of victims. He thinks many romance scams with Nigeria connections are run by an international crime syndicate.

“The thing with these scams is, there are multiple layers. You have the catfish doing the scamming, and the cutouts, who open U.S. bank accounts. Something else you see are situations where the target of the scam will order something at a retailer for the person they think they’re in love with, and the cutout will go pick it up and return it for the money,” he says.

Some romance scam rings operate call centers with employees, according to Aunshul Rege, a criminal justice professor at Temple University. She’s the author of “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Exploring Online Dating Scams and Identity Fraud,” which was published in the August 2009 edition of the International Journal of Cyber Criminology.

“They have eight-hour shifts and a quota,” Rege says. Workers might reach out to 500 potential romance scam targets at the start of a shift, and seven replies would be considered a good yield, she adds.

Playbooks are involved too. “They’ll say, ‘This is how you start the conversation.’ Then, depending on the response, maybe you say something more romantic. Once you’ve hooked a victim, make it a little bit more sexual,” Rege explains.

“And then they’ll say, ‘Now it’s time to introduce your tragic story.’ They give you scripts you can copy and paste into email,” adds Rege, who bases her descriptions on playbooks shared in a February 2018 Better Business Bureau report.

The instructions include poems to send victims and links to videos, such as “My Heart Will Go On,” by Celine Dion.

“They’ll say, ‘I heard this song, and it made me think of you,’” says Rege, adding that after a connection is made, the scammer starts talking about “us” and “we.”

“‘This situation came up, we need to figure out how to handle it,’ The language is very clever and subliminal,” adds Rege, who claims there’s a long history of internet scams from Nigeria. According to her, the crimes are not frowned on by some of the country’s citizens.

“Scammers have been known to flaunt their earnings, and often family and friends look up to scammers as hardworking individuals who bring large paychecks home—they are celebrated as role models,” she tells the ABA Journal.

Aloy Ojilere, a lawyer in Nigeria, disagrees.

“For people who are hardworking, who are living decently, when they try to move outside the country, they get stigmatized,” says Ojilere, who in 2018 co-authored a paper titled “Conceptualizing Cyber Scam in Nigeria.” The article notes that people often associate the country with global cybercrimes and attribute a high level of cybercrime in Nigeria to unemployment following the collapse of world oil prices in the 1980s.

Ojilere, a law teacher at Nigeria’s Imo State University, doesn’t think organized crime is involved in romance scams. Instead, he says the scammers tend to be young men targeting women on their own.

“These are two people, doing their thing,” Ojilere says. That’s why there are so many scammers, and why they are difficult to catch, he adds. Also, there are little to no upfront costs but a potential for high yields.

Ojilere also thinks people who get scammed may have something to hide themselves, like being married to someone else or explicit photos they shared with their scammer.

According to Ojilere, winning a criminal conviction involving romance scams would be difficult in Nigeria. The government not only needs to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt but also provide testimony from victims. Additionally, Nigeria only has bench trials in criminal court.

“Even if a victim did testify, there’s a good chance the judge would not find them sympathetic. People must look before they leap. In Nigeria, there’s an expression, ‘Shine your eye,’” Ojilere says, explaining that the saying means being observant “and not easily carried away by sweet talks.”

Tinder tales

It’s not just middle-aged and older people getting caught up in romance scams: Young people are targeted too.

The FTC says there was a more than tenfold increase in reports about these scams between 2017 and 2021 for people ages 18 to 29. Some of their stories are shared in the Netflix documentary film The Tinder Swindler, which details the exploits of Shimon Hayut. He pretended to be the son of Russian-Israeli diamond tycoon Lev Leviev, and he used trips in private planes, lavish meals and fancy clothing to impress targets. After “Simon Leviev” wooed the women, he told them stories of being in danger and needing money—much like “Paul Edward” and “Allen Green.”

A person using dating websites is likely to come across scammers who hail from various countries, including the U.S., says Renee Lamphere, a sociology and criminal justice professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

“It can be something serious, like asking you to wire them money. Or it could be someone saying: ‘I’m going to meet up with you, but tonight I am really hungry, can you DoorDash me some food?’ Then they block and delete you,” says Lamphere, who co-wrote the 2019 book Online Romance in the 21st Century: Deceptive Online Dating, Catfishing, Romance Scams and ‘Mail Order’ Marriages.

Through Tinder, she recently talked to a person who looked like a handsome firefighter in his dating photos, some of which included puppies. He eventually asked Lamphere if she could loan him $2,000 until his paycheck cleared.

“I said, ‘I wouldn’t pay for a stick of gum. I don’t want a broke man,’” she says.

Also, though never going through with plans to meet in person is a big romance scam red flag, Lamphere says an online dater who wants to meet right away can be a red flag too.

“It’s really a delicate balance,” she adds. “Scammers don’t start with a scam, they start with romance. The term the kids use is ‘love bombing.’ The first few weeks they initiate love, attention and affection. Once they get someone, they start to show their true colors.”

This story was originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Swiped Away: With reports of online romance scams soaring, prosecutors are cracking down.”

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