Scam Artists Conned Lovesick Seniors — And Made Them FBI Targets

Fake generals and bogus diplomats conned lovesick seniors into handing over their savings — and turned them into FBI targets.
Fake generals and bogus diplomats conned lovesick seniors into handing over their savings — and turned them into FBI targets. ILLUSTRATION BY JUSTINE ALLENETTE ROSS

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Julia Dunaway met an American general online, or so she thought. - COURTESY JULIA DUNAWAY
Julia Dunaway met an American general online, or so she thought.

Dunaway was hardly the only one mailing money to the two P.O. boxes. From the spring of 2019 to July 2020, dozens of senior citizens were bilked out of between $550,000 and $1.5 million as part of the scam.

A 71-year-old Tennessee woman mailed at least $15,000 to St. Louis, thinking the money was going to a diplomat named William Smith and would be used to fly Smith from a Syrian hospital to the U.S. in a "bomb proof" airplane.

A 71-year-old woman from New Mexico who fell for a story identical to the one used to dupe Dunaway mailed $160,000 to the Near North Riverfront P.O. box.

A 68-year-old Florida resident sent between $55,000 and $60,000 to the Berkeley P.O box after being contacted by "Diplomat Barry Jones."

A 71-year-old Illinois woman sent an unknown amount of cash after being instructed to do so by a supposed lieutenant general stationed in Syria who went by the name "Raymond Chandler."

The list of anonymous victims in the indictments goes on and on. In the first six months of 2020, Sibe and Ofikoro collected or attempted to collect 87 packages and pieces of mail sent by elderly victims from 25 states.

After Dunaway sent money to St. Louis for the first time, the diplomat said the portfolio would be mailed to her soon. In Mississippi, she paced her home nervously all day expecting the package. She didn't want to go to sleep at night for fear she would miss the delivery.

When the package didn't arrive, she messaged the general and the diplomat asking what had happened. The diplomat said there had been a delay, and the delay meant there would be further charges.

Dunaway says there were about a dozen days she anxiously awaited the delivery of her riches, only to be fed another excuse. The diplomat's secretary had made a mistake or the package was tied up in customs. For every problem, Dunaway was asked to come up with more money.

She ended up withdrawing $14,000 in credit-card cash advances, taking out a $3,000 loan from one bank and a smaller loan from another. Anticipating the fortune was almost within her grasp, Dunaway bought a lock box and sent photos of it to the diplomat and the general so they would know the diamonds and cash would be safe in her possession.

In 2020, a payment she sent to St. Louis caught the attention of U.S. Postal Service investigators here, who alerted Dunaway that there were no military men, and there was no diplomat or portfolio of diamonds.

"My first thought was that he was talking about somebody else," Dunaway says. "Because I never thought that I was being lied to."

However, Dunaway adds, "It didn't take me long to change my mind."

Of the more than 25 victims of the scam involving the St. Louis P.O. boxes, Dunaway is actually an outlier. She was motivated to send money by the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime windfall.

For most victims, the motivation is different. It's love.

Romance Scams and Money Mules

J.T., a 76-year-old living in Utah, said in a victim impact statement that she fell in love with Lieutenant General William Garrett stationed in Iraq. Garrett asked J.T. where she wanted to live with him when he returned from duty, and J.T. said that she wanted to live with Garrett in California. (There is a real Lieutenant General William Garrett, but he was not the one exchanging messages with J.T.)

Garrett told J.T. he had found the perfect place for the two of them, a house in Riverside on the market for $313,000.

Not entirely trusting the lieutenant general, J.T. instructed her nephew who lived relatively close to the property to take a look at it. After her nephew did so, J.T. began sending money to a realtor, whose name was B.M. — the same person whose identity had been used to open the P.O. box in Berkeley.

"He sent me beautiful text messages every day," J.T. wrote. "I really thought he loved me. But obviously he was using me."

Garrett talked J.T. into buying him a cellphone by claiming his troops were in a fight with the Iraqi army and they lost their phones. J.T. did as instructed and sent the phone to B.M. in St. Louis. At one point, J.T. sent money for a plane ticket so Garrett's son could visit her in Utah. To pay for the ticket she had to spend the money she would have otherwise used for food. After the money was sent, Garrett messaged J.T. to say his son had been hit by a car and would not be flying to Utah.

J.T.'s statement is filled with just as much loss as anger, as if writing about a relationship that she wished had worked out. J.T. said it "broke [her] heart" when Garrett stopped messaging.

According to the FBI, a romance scam is carried out by a criminal who "adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim's affection and trust."

The indictment of Ofikoro and Sibe states that, as part of their scheme, "conspirators groomed the women by promising to marry them, and addressing the women as 'Wife' and 'Wifey.' The women believed they were working with their romantic interests to build a future together."

About The Author

Ryan Krull

Ryan Krull is a staff writer for the Riverfront Times. Find him on Twitter @ryanwkrull
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