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Romance scammers who pretended to be US military officers cost older women more than $500K, authorities say

Romance scam (FBI/Released)

Federal prosecutors this week accused three people of scamming more than 40 older women across the country out of more than $500,000 in cash and electronics by pretending to be military men looking for love.

Prosecutors said in an indictment unsealed Monday that the three defendants last year pretended to be high-ranking military officers stationed overseas, using aliases and pictures stolen online. They communicated with their victims mainly via text, email and on social media, both to prevent their victims from hearing their foreign accents and to allow multiple people to take turns pretending to be the men, the indictment said.

Among their victims was a 71-year-old Tennessee woman who sent at least $15,000 to two post office boxes in St. Louis because she was told it would help a general in a Syrian hospital, “William Smith,” fly home on a “bomb proof airplane,” the indictment said.

Two women mailed cash to St. Louis thinking it would help a military officer named “Walter Piatt” get cash and diamonds home from Syria, the indictment said. A 71-year-old from New Mexico sent $160,000 and a 61-year-old Maryland woman estimated she sent $9,600.

Prosecutors say Ovuoke Frank Ofikoro, 41, and Bonmene Sibe, 27, were “money mules” who helped send a portion of the money to Nigeria. They were indicted on charges including conspiracy, mail fraud and aggravated identity theft. Trenice Hassel, 27, was indicted on a charge of making false statements to a federal agency. Prosecutors say Hassel helped open one of the post office boxes.

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Court documents say Sibe is a Jennings resident. It’s believed Ofikoro and Hassel also live in the St. Louis area

In March, a Florissant man pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in a similar case. He has yet to be sentenced.

Richard Quinn, head of the FBI’s St. Louis Division, said romance scams cost victims almost half a billion dollars a year.

U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen said in a statement announcing the charges that romance scams “often succeed against elderly victims who have lost partners or have been isolated due to the pandemic,” and victims are sometimes too embarrassed to report the scams. He asked relatives to watch for “red flags such as increased use of internet messaging services, frequent trips to banks and post offices, abnormal requests for money and increased secrecy.”

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© 2020 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch