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Online romance scams abound

2 face prison in ruse that stole $2M from Woodlands woman

Houston Chronicle 16 Jul 2016 By Gabrielle Banks - 16-07-16
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It started as a Facebook romance.

They had a mutual friend, he told her. They chatted by phone. Soon the love-struck couple were making plans to meet in Houston after he wrapped up his work abroad.

By the time it was over earlier this year, however, the Houston-area woman had been conned out of more than $2 million and two people who aided in the man's ruse face possible time in federal prison.

And as bold as it may seem, the Internet romance-for-profit scheme was not an isolated incident. The scams are increasing across the country on social media, costing victims nearly $200 million in 2015, FBI officials said.

"Some of these victims are actually taking out second mortgages on their homes, they're using their retirement funds, they're doing reverse mortgages, things of that nature. So it's not that these people have disposable income," said J.D. Shamwell, a legal attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Accra, Ghana, on a recent FBI podcast aimed at boosting public awareness.

"A lot of individuals who have been victimized truly believe that they are in an actual caring and loving relationship, albeit in a very short period of time," Shamwell said.

In the Houston case, a woman from The Woodlands identified only as D.B. became Facebook friends in June 2014 with a man calling himself Charlie John Lott, who said he was French and lived in New Jersey.

He'd found her profile on a mutual friend's account, and within a month he was asking for money, according to officials. Soon they had a joint bank account.

The man said he was a construction manager and needed to borrow funds for a project in Anaheim, Calif. Western Union and MoneyGram both rejected her wires as suspected fraud, so he asked for cashier's checks instead.

He then told her about a $42 million project in Johannesburg that needed funding, and she shipped more money, again and again. He professed his love for her and planned visits to Houston that got canceled, according to court documents.

By January, he said he needed a final round of cash to deliver funds from the completed Johannesburg project to their shared bank account. He arranged for the woman to meet over the next two months with two men who said they were South African diplomats, and she handed over more than $500,000 to cover what they said were customs fees.

Eventually, the woman's accountant took her to the FBI, where she helped agents gather evidence in a fraud investigation.

The "boyfriend" never surfaced, nor was he identified or indicted. But on Friday, the two men she met - Lanre Sunday Adeoba, 61, and Kunle Mutiu Amoo, 48, both Nigerian nationals - pleaded guilty in federal court to one count each of conspiring to commit wire fraud.

The men, who are not from the Houston area, admitted to U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennett that they aided in the elaborate scam.

Sentencing is set for Sept. 22. The attorney for Amoo declined to comment; Adeoba's lawyer could not be reached.

The case was all-too typical for romance scam artists, who generally operate from West Africa, trolling legitimate social media and dating sites in search of lovelorn women and men over 40, federal officials said.

The FBI received 12,000 complaints last year from online victims - 82 percent of whom were 40 to 60 years old.

And officials have noted an uptick in reports in the past year. The FBI received 900 more complaints in the first six months of 2015 than in 2014, with $27 million in losses reported.

"If a person is asking you for any money within one or two conversations, I think that should be a red flag," said Shamwell, the attaché, in the podcast. "If a person is refusing to actually meet you or making excuses not to actually see you face-toface, I think that that should be another issue also. If it appears to be too good to be true, it probably is."

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