Fake generals, real accusations in a romantic scam

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  • Victims say they sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to a post office box in Berkeley.

Tracing a romance scam that victimized elderly women across the country, federal investigators found a common link – a post office box in northern St. Louis County. In many cases, scammers have persuaded their aged brands to send money totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Berkeley address.

Last week, federal prosecutors indicted an Ohio woman, Linda Matson, alleging she acted as a “money mule” under the program.

According to the indictment, Matson was contacted online by someone who stole the identity of a US Army general. “General JD” told Matson he needed funds to recover a wallet he said was worth $ 20 million.

Under the direction of the “General,” for several months in 2020, Matson sent about $ 300,000 to the Berkeley PO Box.

In May of the same year, federal authorities contacted Matson in Ohio and told him that she was the victim of a romance scam and that the real military general whose identity was stolen was in fact ” not the recipient of the funds she sent to St. Louis, Missouri. ”

Matson told authorities she would stop sending money to St. Louis and even sent inspectors a series of links to episodes of Dr Phil in which the popular daytime television host covered the subject of romance scams, according to prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

But authorities say Matson’s epiphany didn’t last long. Three days after sending these links to the inspectors, Matson fell back into the grip of the impostor general. It was then that the case took a bizarre turn and, in the eyes of investigators, Matson began to go from victim in the scheme to accomplice. Over the next three months, she persuaded three other people to loan her nearly $ 600,000 to “secure General JD’s wallet with the United States Customs Service; pay the taxes and fees associated with winning the Mexican lottery; and fund General JD’s return from a military mission. abroad ”, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors said Matson told some of the victims that she had met “the general” in person and that he had a multi-million dollar wallet. One of the targets received text messages from Matson’s phone from someone claiming to be “the general” himself.

The Berkeley PO box Matson sent money to is the same address used in the romance scam that led to the indictments of three St. Louis residents in September of last year.

According to a press release from the Department of Justice, Ovuoke Frank Ofikoro, 41, Bonmene Sibe, 27, and others “carried out a romantic ploy in which the fraudsters pretended to be high-ranking military officers deployed to the United States. ‘foreigner. The attackers claimed to have a romantic interest in women between the ages of 45 and 82. ”

A 61-year-old Maryland woman sent $ 9,600 to the Berkeley PO Box after being contacted by “Walter Piatt” who claimed to be an American general who had obtained a “wallet” of diamonds in a military raid he received. he would send Maryland’s wife from Aleppo, Syria.

A 68-year-old Florida resident sent between $ 55,000 and $ 60,000 to the same box after being contacted by a “diplomat Barry Jones.”

A 71-year-old woman from Illinois sent an unknown sum of money to Berkeley after being ordered to do so by a “lieutenant general” stationed in Syria named “Raymond Chandler”.

The Berkeley PO Box was opened in January 2020 by an anonymous person recruited by Trenice Hassel, 28, the alleged third co-conspirator. Prosecutors said Hassel recruited the woman because Hassel knew she “wouldn’t wonder why she was being asked to open a post office box.” Hassel pleaded guilty earlier this year to one count of making false statements to a federal agency and was sentenced to jail. She was described by prosecutors as “lower level” than Ofikoro and Sibe.

Assistant US Attorney Tracy Berry, who pursued the Matson case, said fraudsters “rely on US citizens, or people residing in the United States, to move money because their victims would be a lot. more fearful and reluctant to send money. to an address in Nigeria than to an address in Missouri.

The basic arc of Matson’s story is somewhat similar to that of Kirkwood resident Glenda Seim, 81, who pleaded guilty in November to two counts of identity theft. In 2014, Seim was contacted by someone claiming to be “a US citizen with business interests in Nigeria,” according to prosecutors. Seim sent this person their own money before they started participating as a “money mule”, receiving money from other victims and passing it on to his love online. Like Matson, federal officials say they approached Seim and alerted her that she was participating in a crime, and when she didn’t stop, they pursued her.

“Matson was right about referring to the Dr. Phil episodes,” Berry, who also sued the Seim case, told the Riverfront Times in an interview. “Because he had many women and men who were trapped and faced with the truth, whether it was by law enforcement, family members or bank officials. They then turn around and have another conversation with the scammer and the scammer says, “No, baby. No, baby, this is all real. I’ll help you get your money back. “Whatever the scam, they keep it going.”

Berry says fraudsters can threaten to embarrass the people they cheated if they don’t continue to help transfer the money. Fraudsters may also, in some cases, have compromising photographs that they threaten to post. Other times, the scammers “just continue the bloody story.”

Romance scams have become more common during the pandemic, according to the Federal Trade Commission. In 2020, those who committed such scams defrauded victims over $ 304 million, an increase of about 50% from 2019. The average loss per victim was $ 2,500.

Although Seim has pleaded guilty, she won’t be sentenced until February. Ofikoro has also pleaded guilty and is expected to be sentenced in January.

Sibe pleaded guilty on Wednesday to a conspiracy charge, admitting in a plea deal that he picked up packages from the Berkeley P.O.box but didn’t know what was in them and that he “deliberately avoided to learn the truth “. Sibe’s plea agreement says he handed the packages over to Ofikoro, who then redistributed their contents to Sibe and others.

The case against Matson is still pending in court.

“The worry about suing people is pretty much their level of guilt,” Berry said. “Who did they victimize? had they been warned? Had they had the opportunity to stop their driving? ”

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