Tracing a romance scam that victimized elderly women across the country, federal investigators found a common connection — a post office box in north St. Louis County. In multiple cases, fraudsters persuaded their elderly marks to send money totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars to the address in Berkeley.
Last week, federal prosecutors indicted Ohio woman Linda Matson, alleging she acted as a "money mule" in furtherance of the scheme.
According to the indictment, 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,” over several months in 2020, Matson mailed about $300,000 to the Berkeley P.O. Box.
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 Dr. Phil episodes in which the popular daytime TV host covered the topic of romance scams, according to prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
But the feds say Matson’s epiphany didn’t last long. 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 and, in the eyes of investigators, Matson began to transition from victim in the scheme to an accomplice. Over the next three months, she persuaded three other 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 told some of the victims that she had met “the general” in person and he had a portfolio worth many millions of dollars. One of the targets received text messages from Matson’s phone from someone claiming to be “the general” himself.
The Berkeley P.O. Box Matson sent money to is the same address used in the romance scam that led to the indictment of three St. Louisans in September of last year.
According to a Department of Justice press release, 41-year-old Ovuoke Frank Ofikoro, 27-year-old Bonmene Sibe and other individuals "perpetrated a romance scheme in which the fraudsters pretended to be high-ranking military officers who were deployed overseas. The perpetrators pretended to be romantically interested in the women whose ages ranged between the ages of 45 and 82."
A 61-year-old Maryland woman sent $9,600 to the P.O. Box in Berkeley after being contacted by "Walter Piatt" who claimed to be a United States general who had obtained a "portfolio" of diamonds during a military raid that he would mail to the Maryland woman from Aleppo, Syria.
A 68-year-old Florida resident sent between $55,000 and $60,000 to the same box after being contacted by one "Diplomat Barry Jones."
A 71-year-old Illinois woman sent an unknown amount of cash to Berkeley after being instructed to do so by a "Lieutenant General” stationed in Syria who went by the name “Raymond Chandler.”
The Berkeley P.O. Box was opened in January 2020 by an unnamed person recruited by 28-year-old Trenice Hassel, the third alleged co-conspirator. Prosecutors said Hassel recruited the woman because Hassel knew she “would not question 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 time served. She was described by prosecutors as “lower level” than Ofikoro and Sibe.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tracy Berry, who prosecuted the Matson case, said that 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 basic arc of Matson's story is somewhat similar to that of 81-year-old Kirkwood resident Glenda Seim who in November pleaded guilty to two counts of identity theft. In 2014, Seim was contacted by someone claiming to be "a United States citizen with business interests in Nigeria," prosecutors say. Seim sent this individual her own money before she began to participate as a “money mule,” receiving money from other victims and forwarding it to her online love interest. Like Matson, federal authorities say they approached Seim and alerted her that she was taking part in a crime, and when she did not stop, they prosecuted her.
"Matson was correct in referencing Dr. Phil episodes," Berry, who also prosecuted the Seim case, tells the Riverfront Times in an interview. "Because he has had numerous women and men on who have been catfished and who have been confronted with the truth, either from law enforcement, family members or bank representatives. They then turn around and have another conversation with the fraudster and the fraudster says, 'No, baby. No, baby, this is all real. I'm going to help you get your money back.' Whatever the scam is, they just continue it."
Berry says that fraudsters may threaten to embarrass individuals they have conned if they don't continue to help transfer the money. Fraudsters may also in some cases have compromising photographs that they threaten to release. Other times the fraudsters simply "continue the sob story."
According to the Federal Trade Commission, romance scams have become more prevalent during the pandemic. In 2020, people perpetrating such scams defrauded victims out of $304 million, a roughly 50 percent increase from 2019. The average loss per victim was $2,500.
Though Seim has pleaded guilty, she will not be sentenced until February. Ofikoro pleaded guilty as well and is scheduled to be sentenced in January.
Sibe pleaded guilty on Wednesday to a conspiracy charge, admitting in a plea agreement that he collected packages from the Berkeley P.O. Box but he didn't know what they contained and that he "deliberately avoided learning the truth." Sibe's plea agreement says that he gave the packages to Ofikoro, who then distributed their contents back to Sibe as well as to others.
The case against Matson is still working its way through the courts.
“The concern in prosecuting people is pretty much their level of culpability,” Berry says. “Who did they victimize? Had they been warned? Had they been given the chance to basically stop their conduct?”
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