What started as an attempt to find romance for a 78-year-old man from Annandale, ended up in a scheme that left the victim conned out of more than $500,000. After creating an account on a social network called iFlirt, the senior gentleman connected with someone he believed to be a widowed woman in her 30s who was interested in him.
The scam started to emerge as the relationship grew. The woman claimed to be from New York. She said while traveling to Germany to retrieve an inheritance of gold bars, she was arrested, and needed bail money. The unsuspecting man sent her the money. Then he received another message that she was arrested again, and needed more money.
Court papers did not identify the Annandale man. In the end, the scammers hustled the man out of more than $500,000. He was the latest victim in a growing trend known as romance fraud.
In 2021, romance scams reached a record high. According to the Federal Trade Commission report, romance fraud scams increased 80% from 2020. Victims have lost more than $1.3 billion to such schemes, said the FTC, making it the most category of fraud the agency tracks.
Two people who schemed the Annandale man will be sentenced in Federal court in Alexandria. Linda Mbimadong and Richard Broni, Ghanian nationalists, played relatively small roles in the scheme. They were described by prosecutors as “money mules.” They never made contact with the victim. For a 5% to 10% cut of the proceeds, they did help receive and launder the money.
The scam was headquartered in Ghana. That was where prosecutors believed much of the money, from the $42 million hustle that targeted multiple people, went to.
Mbimadong and Broni, who were living in New York at the time of their arrest, apologized for their actions in sentencing memos ahead of Friday's hearing.
“I have to express my ugly truth. I was selfish, ambitious and greedy for success,” Mbimadong wrote.
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Jessica Aber, is prosecuting the Annandale man's case. She said because victims are embarrassed that they fell for lies like the one the defendants, in this case, told, large numbers of romance scams go unreported. She said the scammers are sophisticated and patient in their approach, building a relationship with victims overtime before making their move.
“These fraudsters know exactly how to play on people's emotions,” Aber said in an interview. “They use third parties to try to validate the stories that are being spun.”
Aber said her office has prosecuted multiple cases of romance fraud in recent years. She said authorities take it seriously when allegations are brought forth.
According to Aber, scammers are located both nationally and internationally. Sometimes the stories are wild and elaborate, and other times more mundane and straightforward.
Aber encourages victims of romance fraud to contact law enforcement. The FBI has a website to report internet crimes, she noted, and the agency does an excellent job of connecting disparate reports when they are made.
“The best thing you can do is to report it so you can potentially stop some other person from falling victim to this kind of scheme,” she said.