Online romance scheme leaves trail of broken hearts

Man typing on computer keyboard

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – It is a web of deceit, spun across four continents and orchestrated by a heartless gang of thieves. At ground zero of this worldwide swindle is an Albuquerque business woman. She went looking for love and ended up an unwitting pawn to an international con game.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, will be referred to as Peg.

It started with an email from a handsome stranger who responded to Peg’s online dating ad.

“He just said that he was glad to get to know me and that everybody needs love and he would like to spend more time communicating with me,” Peg said.

The man, Mike Perry, said he was an antiques dealer from Ireland. An international jet setter, he traveled the world in pursuit of his antiques business. One day Perry might be in London, the next Nigeria.

Over the course of the next four years, the cyber couple exchanged countless text messages, emails and phone calls. As the online romance blossomed, Perry bombarded Peg with one love letter after another.

“The love letters would be how much he cared about me and that I am one in a million,” Peg said.

Even though the letters were copied word for word from a romance website, Peg fell head over heels for the handsome antiques dealer she had met online. They planned to be wed in Ireland.

“There was a small church there that he picked out for us to be married in,” Peg said.

Perry and Peg did not live happily ever after.

Their romance was a carefully orchestrated sham from the beginning. There was nothing real about Perry, his antiques business or his love for Peg. Even his photo was stolen from an Atlanta modeling website.

It was all part of a sophisticated con game.

“This case is in essence a money laundering scheme by suspects out of West Africa who are using romantic online dating services…In essence to launder their illegal monies and get the money back to them overseas,” Rich Ferretti, who heads up the U.S. Secret Service office in Albuquerque, said.

Peg believed Perry when he told her he needed an American bank account to deposit money from his antiques business. He told her, his antiques client would be sending their payments to her Albuquerque bank. Peg was then instructed to wire the money to Perry in Nigeria, where he was selling his antiques.

“She believed she was wiring the money helping him with his antiques business,” Ferretti said. “She didn’t ask a whole lot of questions.”

As much as $350,000 flowed into Peg’s Albuquerque bank account from strangers all over the world. Sometimes it was a few hundred dollars and sometimes tens of thousands. Peg forwarded the money to her online boyfriend in dozens of wire transfers.

“He told me this was for his future,” Peg said. “He says this is for…I’m saving money for our future to move to Ireland.”

That was a bald faced lie. The money flowing into Peg’s bank account did not come from antiques buyers.

“Once they’ve got you, they’ve got you,”— UNM Professor Rich Brody

At the same time Nigerian outlaws were scamming Peg with bogus love letters, they were draining the bank accounts of other love struck victims across the globe. Victims like Antonio Papageorgiu, an immigrant from Argentina living at the time in New Jersey.

“[This person] stole all my money…all my money, all my money,” Papageorgiu said.

In search of friendship, Papageorgiu placed an online dating ad and got a response from a woman who said she lived in New Mexico. Over time as the online romance grew the Albuquerque woman started asking for a lot of money for her business. Even though Papageorgiu didn’t have much money, he promised to help.

“I sold my apartment in New Jersey to send money to help this person,” Papageorgiu said.

Papageorgiu sent her $30,000 he received from the sale his condo. He then got another $5,000 to send along too. It was every penny he had.

He then drove to Albuquerque to surprise his online girlfriend. However, when Papageorgiu arrived at her supposed address, he found a vacant apartment. In an email she explained that she had gone to Taiwan. That is when Papageorgiu went to the police.

Papageorgiu is not the only victim.

Mysterious cyber-criminal in Nigeria pulled the same romance scam on dozens of men from as far away as Australia. They were each lured into an online romance and then conned out of their money for the sake of love.

Who is this Clever Outlaw?

The same cyber crooks, who enticed Peg with bogus love letters, stole her identity and created phony Facebook profiles using stolen suggestive photos. The bogus profiles lured lonely men into online friendships for the purpose of cyber fraud.

“They are predatory individuals,” University of New Mexico Anderson School Professor Rich Brody said. “They have no conscience.”

Peg thought she was receiving money from the sale of antiques. The funds however, came from fraud victims cheated by Nigerian con men posing as online girlfriends. When Peg wired money to the man she knew as Mike Perry, she unwittingly participated in the criminal enterprise by laundering hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“I believe when this crime was occurring she did not realize what she was doing was illegal,” Agent Ferretti said. “She did not realize that she was facilitating all these monies that were illegally gained going overseas.”

The crooks have been traced to Lagos, Nigeria, home to an estimated $1 billion cyber-crime industry.

“Once they’ve got you, they’ve got you,” Brody said.

Brody, who is a fraud expert, said the crooks will do whatever they have to in an effort to rope people in.

“These are individuals who are looking to make a buck the easy way,” Brody said. “They are basically professionals. They do this for a living….Their objective is to rob people blind of their money. They have no conscience with what they do.”

Papageorgiu has lost everything. He is stranded in Albuquerque, living in a small itinerant hotel room and is starting over as a night janitor at CNM.

Peg was devastated and embarrassed at being so gullible.

“Even though some of these victims have lost their life savings…In the end they still just do not believe completely they’ve been defrauded,” Rich Ferritti said.

The mastermind is still hiding behind some computer screen in Nigeria.

“It’s very difficult to bring the criminals to justice when they are located in West Africa,” Ferretti said.

Peg thinks the crooks will get what is coming to them.

“Karma will get him,” Peg said. “One way or the other something is going to happen where he is going to get caught. There’s going to be a slip up and someone’s going to catch him.”

When asked if they ever apologized, Papageorgiu said “she told me sorry, yes, just sorry. Sorry Antonio.”

Romance Scam Red Flags

  • The scammer claims to be a native-born U.S. citizen.
  • Scammers have the worst luck imaginable – The scammer’s “bad luck” occurred when they were on their way to the airport to come to the United States to meet you.
  • The scammer asks you for money to get out of a bad situation.
  • The scammer claims that the U.S. Embassy would not help them.
  • The passport the scammer sent to convince you that (s)he is a U.S. citizen looks computerized and includes a very attractive photo that looks like it was taken by a professional modeling agency or at a photograph studio.

Tips to protect yourself from scammers:

  • Never send money to someone you have not met in person without verifying their identity.
  • Do not disclose personal details over the phone or online — even in your profile on social networking sites.
  • Refer all individuals who claim to be in distress overseas to the local U.S. embassy or consulate at
  • Contact the State Department’s Office of Overseas Citizens Services at 1-888-407-4747.
  • If you insist on sending money, consider sending an OCS Trust instead of direct Western Union or MoneyGram.

Source: U.S. Department of State – Bureau of Consular Affairs

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