Four men have been jailed for almost 14 years for their part in a “cruel” dating website scam which targeted single women looking for love online.
The victims were duped after they responded to the false profile of an “attractive middle-aged man” on the match.com website.
They fell for the conman’s story that he was due to receive a £100 million inheritance from his father but that it was tied up by red tape in India.
Once the relationship had developed with the fake man, normally called James Richards, the conspirators started requesting cash.
At first the women were asked for a £700 legal fee by a fake solicitor but then the sums requested rose to up to £100,000, Winchester Crown Court heard.
The trial was told that vulnerable women were conned out of £220,000, with one victim, Suzanne Hardman, handing over £174,000.
Some realised it was a scam and did not hand over any cash.
Following the three-week trial, Monty Emu, 28, of Frencham Road, Southsea, Hampshire, and Adewunmi Nusi, 37, of Bomford Close, Hermitage, Berkshire, were convicted of money laundering.
At the start of the trial, Emmanuel Oko, 30, of Waverley Grove, Southsea, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud and money laundering and Chukwuka Ugwu, 29, of Somers Road, Southsea, admitted money laundering.
Oko, who was said by the judge to be at the centre of the conspiracy, was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for the fraud and four years to run concurrently for the money laundering offence.
Emu, who laundered about £55,000 during nine months, was jailed for three and a half years, Ugwu was jailed for 46 weeks and Nusi was imprisoned for 18 months.
Sentencing the four men, Judge Susan Evans QC said: “This was a highly sophisticated conspiracy to defraud, it preyed on the trusting, the lonely and the emotionally vulnerable.
“The amount of planning was, in my view, substantial and would have required a highly organised group of individuals.”
She continued: “Some of those females that were targeted were utterly taken in by this cruel scam and the sophistication of the crime means it’s unsurprising that some of them were taken in.
“The hurt and distress you caused them was enormous. It’s not even about the loss of the money being at the forefront of this, it’s about the emotional hurt you caused them.”
In a victim impact statement, Ms Hardman, from Basingstoke, said that the fraud had led to her suffering sleepless nights and not eating because of the stress and that she had lost her self-respect.
She said: “From the day I reported the incident to the police, I felt very vulnerable and sick to my stomach. As I look back, I felt groomed and that is how I became a victim of this, I wouldn’t want anyone else to be a victim of this type of crime.
“I do feel a duty to warn others, women specifically, of this type of theft over dating websites and the internet.
“The money itself was to act as a pension and to support my family as I got old, one could say I have lost everything that I had from a 28-year marriage.”
Sylvia Tai Sen Choy, who lost £11,300 to the scam, said that she had been put on anti-depressants since falling victim.
She said: “I have suffered sleepless nights and nightmares about what happened, at one point I was too frightened to answer the phone.
“All I wanted to do was meet someone so I wasn’t on my own, it sickens me that there are people out there who want to prey on people’s emotions.”
Michelle Sparham, who chose to read her victim statement to the court, described how she now found it difficult to trust and even speak to adults, leading her to suffer what she described as a form of “selective mutism”.
She said: “In respect of my self-confidence I no longer trust any adults, male or female. I just do not 100% believe what any adult is telling me. Before this incident, I was a trusting person.”
Mrs Sparham said that the fraud had affected her health, with her recently suffering pleurisy and pneumonia.
She said: “For about 12 years I was a marathon runner and weighed about 10.5 stone. Since this incident I have gained weight and I can’t bring myself to run any more.
“Running to me was the most pleasurable thing in my life but since this incident I do not believe I deserve any pleasure because I was naive in my judgment and feel the need to constantly punish myself.”
Simon Edwards, prosecuting, told the trial that messages of love and “overblown affection” were sent to the victims through the match.com website, before moving on to emails and text messages.
Examples of the messages sent to multiple recipients included: “You make me feel loved, you make me feel safe, most importantly you make me feel wanted.
“I knew our friendship would grow from the first day we spoke but neither one of us could imagine the love exploding, no thundering, into our hearts.”
Another read: “Honey, seriously I love you because I have never been loved by anyone like you loved me.
“I feel like a complete man. The thought of your hands on my body, particularly when you hold me when I am sleeping.
“I love your generous kindness to me. I love your eyes and lips, your sense of self-love. I want to be with you now.”
Ms Hardman, from Basingstoke, sobbed as she told the court how she was duped by “James Richards” who told her his mother had also died recently.
She said: “He was very sociable, we got on, like a friendship. I learnt a bit about his background, I told him a bit about mine.”
She said that after they had been communicating for about 11 months, “James Richards” told her that his dead father had a frozen account in India with £1.5 million in it.
He also told her that he intended to sell a number of properties owned by his father.
Following the case, prosecutors said they will now pursue those convicted to strip them of their ill-gotten gains.
Detective Constable Darrin Carey, of Hampshire Constabulary, said: “This case centres around a web of lies constructed by a devious group of people with the sole intention of exploiting emotionally vulnerable women for financial gain.
“All members of this group played their part in these offences, which left nine women feeling used and embarrassed and has seen them lose significant amounts of money.
“The women were duped into thinking that they were talking to a man who was genuinely looking for love on the dating website match.com. Unfortunately for them, they were part of an elaborate scam.
“These verdicts should send out a clear message to people who think they can hide behind fake profiles and carry out these scams again and again, that they will be caught and dealt with by the courts.
“I would like to thank the women involved in this case for their courage in coming forward to report this and also for going through the distressing experience of giving evidence about a very personal subject.”
Simon Edwards, of the Crown Prosecution Service, said: “We hope that with these convictions the victims in this case who lost a considerable amount of money and, understandably, could have lost confidence in themselves, will be able to move on with their lives now that the offenders have been brought before the court.
“We will now apply to the court for the ill-gotten assets to be confiscated.”
In a statement, match.com said: “These verdicts show that scammers do get caught, though that’s no consolation for those they exploited.
“Unfortunately, there is a tiny minority of people out there who want to exploit others over the internet. We advise people to use the same common sense as they would if they were meeting someone in a bar or a pub.
“We give lots of safe-dating advice on our site and in emails to members. This makes it clear that you should never send money to anyone you meet online.”