Two Houston residents have been sentenced to federal prison for their roles in an internet “romance scheme” that conned its victims out of millions of dollars.
The online scam used popular dating sites, including ChristianMingle.com and Match.com, to befriend and then defraud older, vulnerable women, according to Oklahoma City federal prosecutors. A widow from Oklahoma City lost more than $1 million from the scam.
Ken Ejimofor Ezeah, 35, and Akunna Baiyina Ejiofor, 33, were charged last year in the wire fraud conspiracy, which involved creating dating profiles under the persona “Edward Peter Duffey,” a fictitious financial adviser from Manchester, England, according to prosecutors. The conspirators would build emotional relationships with the dating site users and eventually persuade them into transferring money for fake investments, prosecutors said.
Ezeah pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He admitted to deceiving victims through “claims of romance.”
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Timothy D. DeGiusti sentenced Ezeah to 11 years in federal prison.
Ejiofor chose to face trial. In March, jurors convicted Ejiofor of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and 18 counts of wire fraud. The judge last month sentenced Ejiofor to seven years in federal prison.
The judge also ordered them to pay $4,678,302 in restitution to 10 victims. Prosecutors alleged the scheme occurred between May 2014 and January 2016 and tricked women in multiple states.
Ezeah and Ejiofor have lived overseas in the past. Ezeah had been a property developer in Nigeria and would travel internationally during the scheme, according to trial testimony.
During Ejiofor’s trial, Ezeah testified for prosecutors. Ezeah said he and at least two others participated in communicating with victims, whom they called “clients.” He told the jury they targeted women in their 50s and 60s.
“That age group would reflect people either divorced, widowed or more available emotionally,” he testified.
Ejiofor’s role in the scheme included setting up the fraudulent profiles, acquiring bank accounts for the transfers and speaking on the phone with victims as “Duffey’s” daughter, “Heather,” prosecutors alleged.
Ejiofor testified during the trial and claimed she was unaware the scam was going on, according to her trial attorney. Prosecutors, though, reported that Ejiofor admitted to the FBI in January 2016 to setting up fake dating profiles for the scam.
In a sentencing memorandum, defense attorney J. Patrick Quillian wrote that Ejiofor was a “cog in the wheel,” working as Ezeah’s personal assistant and having little knowledge of the overall scheme.
The defense attorney referred to Ejiofor as a minor participant who took orders from Ezeah and received a small salary in return.
“Beyond this salary, Ms. Ejiofor never received portions of the money Mr. Ezeah defrauded people out of,” the defense attorney wrote. “Despite participating and talking to victims, Ms. Ejiofor never was a significant part of Mr. Ezeah’s fake backstories.”
After courting the dating site users, “Duffey” would eventually turn conversations to finances and inform the women that their investments were unsafe, according to prosecutors. He then would offer to manage their money.
In furtherance of the scam, a woman posing as the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission would contact the victims and urge them to follow “Duffey’s” advice, according to prosecutors.
Victims even received flowers from “Duffey,” prosecutors said.
OKC victim testified
The Oklahoma City woman caught up in the scam testified at Ejiofor’s trial. She told the jurors about speaking with “Duffey,” who had an English accent.
“He was always very kind. I think if he was aggressive I would have repelled,” the woman testified. In text messages to the victim, “Duffey” called her “the light of my life, my angel,” according to testimony.
After wiring money to an account in London for “Duffey” to invest, communication ceased and she realized she had been fooled, she testified.
Another victim from Dallas lost $1.1 million, documents show. A victim in South Carolina lost $345,000, and a victim in Michigan lost $215,000, documents show.
In January 2016, the FBI executed search warrants where Ejiofor and Ezeah lived in Houston. An FBI agent testified that cellphones and notebooks related to the conspiracy were discovered.