A South Jersey couple was charged Tuesday in an international romance scam that used bogus profiles on dating websites to woo unsuspecting victims into giving up more than $6 million, federal authorities said.
Martins Friday Inalegwu, 31, and Steincy Mathieu, 24, a husband and wife from Maple Shade, face charges of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, according to the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s Office. Authorities arrested Inalegwu while Mathieu remained at large.
The married couple and their conspirators, including some in Nigeria, carried out the con from October 2016 through last month, according to documents in the case. In all, federal investigators identified 33 victims who were scammed around the country.
Authorities alleged the scammers reached their victims through dating websites and social media, and pretended to strike up a romantic relationship with their targets. Agents found profiles allegedly used in the scam on sites including, eHarmony.com, Match.com and Plenty of Fish, documents show.
The conspirators bilked their supposed online romantic interests out of money using false emergencies, according to investigators. Some of the claims included customs fees, taxes, medical and travel expenses. Court documents show the victims wired the money or mailed checks to the scammers, who used the fake online personas.
In one case, a victim was duped by a profile claiming to be a Kentucky-native and widower who purported to be in South Africa for work, according to a criminal complaint. After about six weeks of chatting and forming a fake relationship, the scammer convinced the victim into sending money to fund his supposed businesses and medical expenses.
The unwitting victim sent $114,900 to various conspirators, one of several payments, according to court papers. Facing apparent financial ruin from the fraud, the victim allegedly began stealing money from her work to pay the accused scammers.
“In or about March 2017, after exhausting her savings, liquidating her retirement account, borrowing from friends and family, taking out a personal loan, and maxing out her credit cards, [the victim], employed as the finance director, began embezzling money from her employer,” a federal agent wrote in the complaint.
In all, the victim funneled $4 million to the scammer from her employer, according to the document. She pleaded guilty in a local court for embezzling from her job.
Inalegwu, Mathieu and their conspirators also defrauded people by advertising properties they didn’t own and collected application fees and security deposits on the properties, authorities said.
Authorities said Inalegwu and Mathieu directly received $3.1 million in the scheme. The duo allegedly spent the victims’ money on their own expenses while also transferring the funds to accounts run by conspirators in Nigeria and Turkey.
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Noah Cohen may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.