A romance scam defrauded victims of nearly $1 million and left many in “dire straits,” federal prosecutors say.
The “kingpin” was sentenced Monday, Aug. 7, to roughly six years in prison and ordered to pay nearly $400,000 dollars in restitution, according to court records.
Federal officials in California say Okechukwu Nwofor, 32, led a network of money mules accused of deceiving victims through romance scams and business email compromise scams. When the victims would send them money, officials say, they would withdraw or transfer the funds to different accounts to conceal their activities.
“Defendant and his co-conspirators’ fraudulent conduct has left many of the victims in dire straits, including one victim’s inability to care for her disabled son, the foreclose of another’s home, and even one victim tragically taking her own life,” prosecutors wrote in the indictment.
Nwofor, of Brooklyn, New York, coordinated the scheme with four other Brooklyn-based accomplices through July 2018 to November 2019, prosecutors estimate.
One of their victims was a resident of Pasadena, California, who wired $19,000 from her bank account in California to an account in New York controlled by one of the accomplices, according to court records.
The group is also accused of inducing one victim to write three cashier’s checks worth $152,000. The sentencing memorandum names five victims in total and says the group caused losses of more than $930,000.
Nwofor wrote apology letters to victims and the judge, expressing guilt for accepting money and saying he had no idea he was receiving fraudulent funds.
“I have never in my life duped or intend to dupe anyone of his or her hard earned money nor participated in any crime,” he wrote in a message to Central District of California Judge Stephen V. Wilson.
In his sentencing on Aug. 7, Wilson called Nwofor the “personification of evil,” according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Prosecutors identified Nwofor as the ringleader of the scams. He pleaded guilty to leading a money laundering conspiracy, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“This money, which mostly represented hard-earned savings for many of the victims, was thereafter immediately drained from defendant’s accounts, and accounts he controlled, and laundered, making any recovery virtually impossible,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memorandum.
McClatchy News could not immediately reach lawyers for Nwofor.
Nwofor’s family pleaded on his behalf for leniency in letters to the court. His parents described his emigration from Nigeria to the United States at the age of 13 and said they had instilled the importance of godly behavior in their son. Nwofor’s siblings also wrote letters attesting to his character, saying their brother got mixed up in something he didn’t understand.
“I am a hard-working citizen and a good role model to my daughter as a father and to my community,” Nwofor wrote. “I’m a victim of circumstance and fell into the hands of bad people posing as good friends and businessmen.”
According to the FBI, “romance scams occur when a criminal adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim’s affection and trust. The scammer then uses the illusion of a romantic or close relationship to manipulate and/or steal from the victim.”
Four other defendants accused of working with Nwofor pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering. Three received probationary sentences and one has not yet been sentenced, the news release states.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800 273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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