Romance scam fraudsters target "individuals looking for love and companionship," according to the FBI. "They spend hours honing their skills and sometimes keep journals on their victims to better understand how to manipulate and exploit them. The scammers often watch social media accounts or glean information from an online dating profile."
Scams like the one Sibe and Ofikoro participated in are run out of a number of different countries, though they have become something of a cottage industry in Nigeria. A "419 scam" is an umbrella term for this type of fraud, named for the section of Nigeria's criminal code outlawing it. The romance scam is an update on the well-known Nigerian prince scam, in which the victim is contacted by a person claiming to be Nigerian prince who has come into a large inheritance but needs a small loan to pay the fees in order to get the money. A person who truly believes they are sending money to would-be Nigerian royalty would have little compunction about sending money or valuables to Nigeria. However, when romance scams evolved to include fake generals in Syria, the logistics became a little more complicated. The money was still ultimately headed to Nigeria, but asking a victim to send a package or a wire transfer to the African nation for a supposed American soldier in the Middle East would almost certainly give victims pause.
That is where what the FBI calls "money mules" come in. A money mule is "someone who transfers or moves illegally acquired money on behalf of someone else."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tracy Berry prosecuted Sibe and Ofikoro. She says fraudsters "rely upon United States citizens, or individuals who are residing in the United States, to move the money because their victims would be a lot more apprehensive and reluctant to send money to an address in Nigeria than they would an address in Missouri."
The money Dunaway and others mailed to St. Louis wasn't staying here. According to the Justice Department, Ofikoro transferred some of the money to a bank in Nigeria.
Online scams are nothing new. According to CNBC, before the pandemic the Nigerian prince version of the scam was bilking people out of $900,000 a year. But amid the increased social isolation and mental-health pressures brought upon by COVID-19, the FBI says the online fraud industry has boomed. Officials said at a press conference in December in St. Louis that during a typical month in the Eastern District of Missouri, the FBI receives about 300 complaints related to online scams. These 300 monthly complaints total an average of $2.4 million in losses, or $8,000 per victim.
On April 8, 2020, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service learned of the romance scam operating out of Berkeley. Berry couldn't discuss how they uncovered this specific fraud ring but said they generally come to the attention of law enforcement thanks to diligent postal employees, family members of victims and even victims themselves.
Arrest warrants were issued for Sibe and Ofikoro in August of that year. When Sibe was apprehended, he had in his possession electronic images of mail from elderly victims who lived in Georgia and Tennessee. He also had a package from Dunaway. Ofikoro was arrested in Chicago as he was headed out of the country. Hassel was arrested in September 2020 in St. Louis.
At a hearing in July 2021 when Ofikoro pleaded guilty, the judge stated that Ofikoro could potentially lose his citizenship because in his application he signed a form saying he had committed no crimes while in the U.S.
When Sibe pleaded guilty in December, he signed a plea agreement saying that he was ignorant to the wider scheme and "despite the high probability that the money was proceeds of a fraud scheme, [Sibe] deliberately avoided learning the truth."
Ofikoro could face as many as nine years in jail. His sentencing is scheduled for March. Sibe is set to be sentenced sometime after February 28.
A woman identified only as C.H. in court documents was much more succinct in her victim impact letter to the court than J.T from Utah was. A widow who lives on social security and a small pension, C.H. said the thief "dwindled [her] savings account down to nothing. These guys need to be put away for a long time. They are the trash of the earth."
Both Victim and Accomplice
Two months after arresting Sibe, Ofikoro and Hassel, the Justice Department indicted Ohio woman Linda Matson in connection with the scheme.
If Dunaway is a textbook scam victim and the men pretending to be "Diplomat Barry Jones" and "General Will Smith" textbook scammers, Matson falls somewhere in between.
The 61-year-old's story began very similarly to Dunaway's.
In early 2020, Matson was contacted online by someone who had stolen the identity of a United States Army general. "General J.D." told Matson that he needed funds to recover a portfolio he claimed was worth $20 million.
At the direction of the general, Matson mailed about $300,000 to the Berkeley P.O. box. over the course of several months.
In May of that year, federal authorities contacted Matson in Ohio and told her she was the victim of a romance scam and that the real military general whose identity had been stolen was in fact "not the beneficiary of the funds she was mailing to St. Louis, Missouri."
Matson told authorities she would stop sending money to St. Louis and even sent the inspectors a series of links to episodes of Dr. Phil's show in which the popular daytime TV host covered the topic of romance scams, according to prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"Matson was correct in referencing Dr. Phil episodes," Berry says. "Because he's had numerous women and men on who have been catfished and who have sent money and who have been confronted with the truth ... and they just continue."
The feds say that three days after sending those links to inspectors, Matson fell back under the sway of the imposter general.
That's when the case took a bizarre turn. In the eyes of investigators, Matson began to transition from victim in the scheme to accomplice. Over the next three months, she and others persuaded three people to loan her nearly $600,000 to "secure General J.D.'s portfolio from the United States Customs Service; pay taxes and fees associated with her winning the Mexican lottery; and finance General J.D.'s return from a military assignment overseas," according to the indictment.
Prosecutors say Matson also contacted Postal Service inspectors and said she needed to expedite the return of money she had sent to St. Louis that had been seized by authorities when they first revealed to her that she was a victim of a romance scam. She needed the money back soon, she said, because her niece had gone missing. In fact, the indictment says, Matson intended to use the money to "further her relationship with the individual she believed to be General J.D."
Prosecutors say Matson told some of the victims that she had met the general in person and he had a portfolio worth many millions of dollars. A Dayton man received text messages from someone claiming to be the general, stating that if he loaned J.D. $50,000, he could double his money in two weeks. The text messages originated from Matson's phone. Finally, Matson also instructed another individual to transfer $125,000 from their Florida bank account so she could forward it on to the general.
The allegations appear to show Matson falling more fully under the scammers' control, but to federal authorities, she had crossed a line and was now victimizing others.
Matson was arraigned in court in Missouri in December and pleaded not guilty.