A lonely widow caught in an online scammer’s web of deceit has been convicted of fraud and will spend the next 10 years paying for the $50,000 mistake.
Margaret Ena Simpson, of South Taranaki, met the international fraudster through an online dating site. She never saw the man in person and knew him only as Tony.
Tony used her as a mule to funnel money through an invoicing scam he was running on a Manawat?-based building company.
Unbeknown to Simpson, Tony had hijacked the email account of Palmer and Low Construction and was able to change invoices before they went to clients.
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The event arm of America’s Cup syndicate Team New Zealand lost $2.8 million in similar fashion after paying it to a scammer’s Hungarian bank account.
Tony told the 60-year-old, whose husband of 22 years had died of cancer, that money was going to appear in her bank account and instructed her to forward the cash to two other accounts.
The first payment, of $53,023.35, appeared in Simpson’s account on April 4. The following day she went into the bank and sent $25,015 to an Australian account via foreign exchange.
Simpson also withdrew $13,300 in cash which she deposited back into her account the following day.
She then sent a further $25,000 to another Australian account, telling bank staff she had been sent the money by her Australian boyfriend.
Simpson was not aware the $53,000 was in fact a progress payment made to Palmer and Low on April 4, via internet banking, by retired couple Ross and Judith Charlton towards their dream home in Feilding.
The couple, formerly of South Taranaki, made a second payment of the same amount on April 16 but the alarm was then raised by the bank’s fraud team.
The bank was able to reverse the second payment but the Charltons were left $53,000 out of pocket, with the emotional stress taking a toll on their health.
On Wednesday, Simpson appeared before Judge Philip Recordon in the H?wera District Court on a charge of money laundering.
Defence lawyer Rajan Rai provided Simpson’s explanation so Judith Charlton, who was in court, could hear it.
“The defendant says she felt lonely and she fell for this person who described himself as Tony, who was charming and kind,” Rai said.
“In hindsight, she realises she should have been suspicious and should have made further inquiries of this person, Tony, when two large sums of money were deposited in her account.”
Rai said Simpson acknowledged she had been reckless but claimed she had been disarmed of rational thought by Tony’s genuine and kind persona.
Simpson was committed to paying the $53,000 back at $100 a week from her benefit, Rai said.
Police prosecutor Sergeant Steve Hickey said the Charltons maintained in their victim impact statement, which he read to the court, that they were the victims of Simpson’s selfish stupidity and she had ignored the warning signs.
“You did not ask any questions. You are not a victim. You lost nothing.”
Ross Charlton still could not face Simpson in person, Hickey said.
The moment Judith Charlton was told the money had been stolen her heart sank, Hickey said, and the ongoing stress had caused significant health problems for the couple.
“It is impossible to accurately describe the feeling, it was horrible.”
The couple had had to take out a mortgage to get their home finished but it was not to the standard they expected.
“The gloss and happiness we should have had when moving into our new home was not there and it still isn’t as two years on it is still not finished,” Hickey read.
Ross Charlton developed pneumonia, a blood clot in his leg and ended up with medically induced diabetes which required an expensive diet, and the couple were struggling to make ends meet.
“Last year I cried when our neighbour gave me a bag of green beans for dinner. That is how bad things have been for us.”
Hickey said there was an element of recklessness to Simpson’s behaviour and similar problems were becoming more prevalent, citing the example of Team New Zealand.
Judge Recordon convicted Simpson, ordered her to pay the $53,000 in reparation at $100 per week and sentenced her to 150 hours of community work.
Lepperton’s Ruru House childcare centre lost $54,000 in a similar scam at the end of 2018.