ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - (This article was originally published on October 30, 2014)
It is a web of deceit, spun across four continents and orchestrated by a heartless gang of thieves. At ground zero of this worldwide swindle is an Albuquerque business woman. She went looking for love and ended up an unwitting pawn to an international con game.
The woman, who asked not to be identified, will be referred to as Peg.
It started with an email from a handsome stranger who responded to Peg's online dating ad.
"He just said that he was glad to get to know me and that everybody needs love and he would like to spend more time communicating with me,” Peg said.
The man, Mike Perry, said he was an antiques dealer from Ireland. An international jet setter, he traveled the world in pursuit of his antiques business. One day Perry might be in London, the next Nigeria.
Over the course of the next four years, the cyber couple exchanged countless text messages, emails and phone calls. As the online romance blossomed, Perry bombarded Peg with one love letter after another.
"The love letters would be how much he cared about me and that I am one in a million,” Peg said.
Even though the letters were copied word for word from a romance website, Peg fell head over heels for the handsome antiques dealer she had met online. They planned to be wed in Ireland.
"There was a small church there that he picked out for us to be married in,” Peg said.
Perry and Peg did not live happily ever after.
Their romance was a carefully orchestrated sham from the beginning. There was nothing real about Perry, his antiques business or his love for Peg. Even his photo was stolen from an Atlanta modeling website.
It was all part of a sophisticated con game.
"This case is in essence a money laundering scheme by suspects out of West Africa who are using romantic online dating services...In essence to launder their illegal monies and get the money back to them overseas,” Rich Ferretti, who heads up the U.S. Secret Service office in Albuquerque, said.
Peg believed Perry when he told her he needed an American bank account to deposit money from his antiques business. He told her, his antiques client would be sending their payments to her Albuquerque bank. Peg was then instructed to wire the money to Perry in Nigeria, where he was selling his antiques.
"She believed she was wiring the money helping him with his antiques business,” Ferretti said. “She didn't ask a whole lot of questions."
As much as $350,000 flowed into Peg's Albuquerque bank account from strangers all over the world. Sometimes it was a few hundred dollars and sometimes tens of thousands. Peg forwarded the money to her online boyfriend in dozens of wire transfers.
"He told me this was for his future,” Peg said. “He says this is for…I’m saving money for our future to move to Ireland."
That was a bald faced lie. The money flowing into Peg's bank account did not come from antiques buyers.
At the same time Nigerian outlaws were scamming Peg with bogus love letters, they were draining the bank accounts of other love struck victims across the globe. Victims like Antonio Papageorgiu, an immigrant from Argentina living at the time in New Jersey.
"[This person] stole all my money…all my money, all my money," Papageorgiu said.
In search of friendship, Papageorgiu placed an online dating ad and got a response from a woman who said she lived in New Mexico. Over time as the online romance grew the Albuquerque woman started asking for a lot of money for her business. Even though Papageorgiu didn't have much money, he promised to help.
"I sold my apartment in New Jersey to send money to help this person,” Papageorgiu said.
Papageorgiu sent her $30,000 he received from the sale his condo. He then got another $5,000 to send along too. It was every penny he had.
He then drove to Albuquerque to surprise his online girlfriend. However, when Papageorgiu arrived at her supposed address, he found a vacant apartment. In an email she explained that she had gone to Taiwan. That is when Papageorgiu went to the police.
Papageorgiu is not the only victim.
Mysterious cyber-criminal in Nigeria pulled the same romance scam on dozens of men from as far away as Australia. They were each lured into an online romance and then conned out of their money for the sake of love.
Who is this Clever Outlaw?
The same cyber crooks, who enticed Peg with bogus love letters, stole her identity and created phony Facebook profiles using stolen suggestive photos. The bogus profiles lured lonely men into online friendships for the purpose of cyber fraud.
"They are predatory individuals,” University of New Mexico Anderson School Professor Rich Brody said. “They have no conscience."
Peg thought she was receiving money from the sale of antiques. The funds however, came from fraud victims cheated by Nigerian con men posing as online girlfriends. When Peg wired money to the man she knew as Mike Perry, she unwittingly participated in the criminal enterprise by laundering hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"I believe when this crime was occurring she did not realize what she was doing was illegal,” Agent Ferretti said. “She did not realize that she was facilitating all these monies that were illegally gained going overseas."