JACKSON, MI – Heidi Cowley’s attorney says she was targeted by a scammer who promised her love and attention if only she could help him financially.
But the man wasn’t even real.
The $166,949 she’s been convicted of embezzling from her former employer was real, however. Now, Cowley is being sent to prison for the next two to 30 years. Jackson County Circuit Judge John McBain handed down the sentence Wednesday, Sept. 30.
“Her biggest downfall was her loneliness and gullibility,” her attorney Jarred Hopkins said. “This is an exorbitant amount of money taken over a long period of time, but it’s not like she took this money and went on a trip to Aruba or bought fancy cars. She was catfished by someone in Nigeria and that’s who she sent to money to.”
With the advent of growing digital technology, it’s impossible to know for sure if the scammer was truly operating out of Nigeria, but that is where the money found itself and will likely never be recovered, officials said.
The FBI warns of scammer operations based out of Nigeria and urges U.S. citizens to be wary of who they interact with online.
By definition, catfishing is a deceptive activity where a person creates a fake identity on a social media or other means and targets a specific victim for abuse or fraud. Catfishing is often seen used in romance scams on dating websites.
Arrested and charged in early 2019, Cowley, 48, pleaded guilty Aug. 25 to one felony count of embezzling more than $50,000 but less than $100,000 in a plea bargain. She admitted to embezzling the $166,949 from Seymour Ford in Jackson, her previous employer.
“I am so sorry for all the pain I’ve caused,” said Cowley, who wept at her sentencing. “After 20 years, each and every one there was like family to me. I miss them and take full responsibility. I’m ashamed of myself.”
McBain, having been unaware of what the term catfishing meant until this case, was not swayed by her tears or Hopkins’ argument, stating Cowley has prior felony convictions for fraud in the ’90s that were committed in a similar fashion under similar circumstances.
“It would be one thing if you had no prior felonies, but you have three,” McBain said. “I find it almost ironic that probation is recommending I could get your attention with 100 days in jail and probation five years when you did six months in jail previously for a much lower amount stolen.”
Cowley was convicted of fraud in 1998 and served six months in jail after embezzling from a doctor’s office where she worked, prosecutors said.
Cowley told the court she regretted her actions then as well, stating she was in a relationship and thought she “could buy love” by continually purchasing gifts for the man in question.
Prosecutors say Cowley’s behavior shows a pattern.
“Often when someone is catfished, they become the victims,” Jackson County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Hull said. “Assuming she really was catfished, instead of her becoming the victim, she used her position of power to victimize other people. Not just the owner of this business but all its employees. She was put in a position of trust and money and she abused it not once but twice in her life.”
Cowley, who was free on bond throughout her court proceedings, turned herself into the Jackson County Jail by 5 p.m. and is awaiting transfer to prison.
She was credited for two days served and to pay $166,949 in restitution.
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