(CNN) — Mona Faiz Montrage portrays a lavish lifestyle of designer outfits, shopping trips and overseas travel on social media.
To her 4.2 million Instagram followers, she’s a musician and a mogul who jet sets between the Ghanaian capital of Accra and London.
But a federal indictment unsealed Monday alleges she was part of a cybercrime organization from West Africa that committed a series of scams including a romance scam which bilked over $2 million from older and vulnerable Americans. She was arrested in the United Kingdom in November and extradited to New York on Friday, federal officials said.
Montrage faces various charges, including conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to receive stolen money, according to the US Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York.
She pleaded not guilty Monday, her attorney, Adam Cortez, told CNN in an email. He declined to comment further, saying he’s still awaiting more details on the allegations from the government.
She allegedly convinced a victim they were married
Montrage, 30, of Accra, Ghana, was allegedly part of a group of con artists from West Africa.
Between 2013 and 2019, their criminal enterprise allegedly committed various forms of fraud against individuals and companies in the United States. The alleged crimes included romance scams that preyed on older men and women who lived alone, according to court documents.
Federal prosecutors detailed scams that they said left victims financially and emotionally devastated.
The scammers allegedly reached out to the victims through online dating and social media apps. They used fake identities to send texts, emails and social media messages, and duped them into believing they were romantically involved, court documents say.
“Once members of the enterprise had successfully convinced victims that they were in a romantic relationship and had gained their trust, they convinced the victims, under false pretenses, to transfer money to bank accounts the victims believed were controlled by their romantic interests, when, in fact, the bank accounts were controlled by members of the enterprise,” the indictment said.
Montrage controlled bank accounts that received over $2 million in fraudulent funds, the indictment said. She had accounts in New York and elsewhere, where some of the funds were deposited and she disbursed them to other scammers she was working with, court documents said.
In one instance, she allegedly used her real name to communicate with a victim by phone and received money directly from the victim. She’d tricked the victim into believing that they were officially married, court documents said.
“Montrage sent the victim a tribal marriage certificate purporting to show that Montrage and the victim had been married in Ghana,” court documents said.
She allegedly convinced the victim to send her $89,000 through 82 wire transfers for her father’s farm in Ghana. And in November 2018, she allegedly received checks worth at least $195,000 from another romance scam victim, according to the indictment.
Romance scams led to $1.3 billion in losses last year
Romance scams are one of the fastest growing types of fraud, the Federal Trade Commission said. The scams have evolved in recent years, with people paying romance scammers in various ways, including cryptocurrency and gift cards.
“Romance scams – especially those that target older individuals – are of major concern,” said Michael J. Driscoll, the FBI assistant director in charge.
Such scams have skyrocketed in recent months. In 2021, victims of romance scams lost $547 million, up 80% from 2020. And last year, romance scams led to a staggering $1.3 billion in losses and nearly 70,000 reports of people targeted. The average reported loss was $4,400, the FTC said.
“These scammers pay close attention to the information you share, and don’t miss a beat becoming your perfect match,” ithe FTC said. “You like a thing, so that’s their thing, too. You’re looking to settle down. They’re ready too. But there is one exception – you want to meet in real life, and they can’t.”
Montrage is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, one count of wire fraud, one count of money laundering conspiracy, and one count of money laundering, each of which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, according to the Department of Justice. She’s also charged with one count of receipt of stolen money, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, and one count of conspiracy to receive stolen money, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, the DOJ said.
Her bail is set at $500,000 and once she’s released, she’ll be on home detention and subjected to electronic monitoring at her aunt’s house in New Jersey, said Nicholas Biase, a spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York.
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