At first glance, Mona Faiz Montrage appears like any other glamorous influencer posting photos of her designer bags and flaunting her opulent lifestyle online. But behind the screen, she was involved in a multimillion-dollar romance scam that preyed on vulnerable, lonely and older victims in the United States, prosecutors allege.
The Ghanaian influencer, who boasts more than 4.2 million followers on Instagram where she goes by “Hajia4reall”, was extradited to the U.S. on Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York announced Monday.
Montrage, 30, allegedly scammed followers out of more than $2 million. She has been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, money laundering conspiracy, money laundering, receipt of stolen money and conspiracy to receive stolen money. She was arrested in the United Kingdom in November, prosecutors said in a press release.
Prosecutors said she rose to fame as an influencer on Instagram and was among the top 10 profiles with the most followers in Ghana. On her page, she shares posts about her music, travels to London and luxury goods.
Montrage made an initial appearance in court Monday where she pleaded not guilty to all counts. NBC News has reached out to her attorney for comment.
Prosecutors said that she was involved in multiple romance scams that targeted “vulnerable, older men and women who lived alone,” and that she got money from them under false pretenses.
They said that from 2013 to 2019, she was a member of a criminal operation in West Africa that committed fraud — including romance scams — against individuals and businesses in the U.S.
Montrage allegedly controlled bank accounts that received more than $2 million in fraudulent funds from the operation.
The operation would target victims through online dating and social media websites by using fake personas to send emails, text messages and social media messages to deceive them into believing they were in romantic relationships. The victims would then be convinced to transfer money to bank accounts controlled by members of the operation.
Scenarios used to entice victims to send money included “payments to transport gold to the United States from overseas, payments to resolve a fake FBI unemployment investigation, payments to assist a fake United States Army officer in receiving funds from Afghanistan,” prosecutors said.
In one case, they said, Montrage used her real name and spoke to the victim several times by phone. She even sent the person a tribal marriage certificate that purportedly showed they were married in Ghana.
The victim then sent Montrage 82 wire transfers totaling $89,000 to purportedly help her father’s farm in Ghana, prosecutors said.
The indictment states Montrage received fraud proceeds from victims of the operation in bank accounts she controlled in New York City and elsewhere, and in business bank accounts opened in the name of “4Reall Designs,” a purported clothing company.
Once she received the money in the accounts she controlled, she withdrew, transported and laundered those proceeds to other members of the operation, the indictment said.
Damian Williams, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said such romance scams “can be both financially and emotionally devastating for vulnerable victims.”
Michael J. Driscoll, the FBI’s assistant director in charge, said that Montrage often targeted elderly victims in the operation’s schemes.
“Romance scams — especially those that target older individuals — are of major concern. The FBI will be tireless in our efforts to hold fraudsters accountable in the criminal justice system,” he said.
Montrage is due back in court June 28.
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