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Winchester: Four Men on Trial Over Online Dating Scam
Vulnerable women were conned out of £220,000, including £170,000 from one victim, by a conspiracy which targeted single women looking for love on an internet dating site, a court has heard.
The victims were duped after they responded to a false profile of an "attractive middle-aged man'' on the match.com website.
Once the relationship developed, the conspirators would start requesting money.
Simon Edwards, prosecuting, told a jury at Winchester Crown Court, that they created a tale that the fake man, normally called James Richards, was due to receive a £100 million inheritance from his father but this was tied up by bureaucracy in India.
He said that at first the women would be asked a £700 legal fee by a fake solicitor and then the sums requested to help release the money increased from £10,000 to an "astonishing'' £100,000.
Mr Edwards said that one woman handed over a total of £174,000 while some victims realised it was a scam and did not pay any money.
Brooke Boston, 28, of Common Lane, Titchfield, Hampshire, and Eberechi Ekpo, 26, of Adair Road, Southsea, both deny charges of conspiracy to defraud and money laundering.
Monty Emu, 28, of Adair Road, Southsea, and Adewunmi Nusi, 27, of Bomford Close, Hermitage, Berkshire, both deny money laundering.
The jury was told that Emmanuel Oko, 29, of Waverley Grove, Southsea, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud and money laundering and Chukwuka Ugwu, 28, of Somers Road, Southsea, has pleaded guilty to money laundering.
Mr Edwards said that the conspirators would begin by sending messages of love and "overblown affection'' to the victims through the match.com website before moving on to emails and text messages.
Examples of the messages sent to multiple recipients included: "You make me feel loved, you make me feel safe, most importantly you make me feel wanted.
"I knew our friendship would grow from the first day we spoke but neither one of us could imagine the love exploding, no thundering into our hearts.''
Another read: "Honey, seriously I love you because I have never been loved by anyone like you loved me.
"I feel like a complete man. The thought of your hands on my body, particularly when you hold me when I am sleeping.
"I love your generous kindness to me. I love your eye and lips, your sense of self-love.
"I want to be with you now.''
Mr Edwards said once contact had developed, the conspirators would move away from match.com to emails.
He said: "They were then safe to ask what they really wanted to ask these victims and this was not for their love but their money.''
Mr Edwards explained that the "entirely fictitious'' inheritance would be backed up with fake documents, many of which had spelling mistakes such as "starling'' instead of sterling and a passport which had the forename and Christian names in the wrong places.
He said the conspirators invented a fake solicitor called Rod Thompson of Quality Solicitors who was involved in the correspondence and the victims were even sent a forged e-business card from him.
He said that Quality Solicitors was a real firm whose name was being use without its knowing, but Thompson had been invented.
Mr Edwards explained that the demands were backed up by forged affidavits and other documents.
He said that the money was paid to the bank account of a man who had not been traced before being transferred to the defendants' bank accounts and moved around to help hide it.
Mr Edwards said that much of the money was taken out of cash machines in Portsmouth where five of the defendants lived at the time.
He added: "Most of the defendants didn't have a regular or substantial income although they appeared to have lived quite comfortably, we say, on the proceeds of the conspiracy.''
One of the victims, Suzanne Hardman, from Basingstoke, sobbed as she told the court that she was duped by the false profile of James Richards into handing over about £170,000 to the conspirators.
She told the court that they became friends on match.com and he told her that he was widowed and had lost his mother.
She said she could relate to him because her mother had also died recently.
She said: "He was very sociable, we got on, like a friendship. I learnt a bit about his background, I told him a bit about mine.''
She said that after they had been communicating for about 11 months, "James Richards'' told her that his dead father had a frozen account in India with £1.5 million in it.
He also told her that he intended to sell a number of properties owned by his father.
She said that she was originally asked for £700, then a further £10,000, which she paid to cover unpaid tax on the inheritance to enable it to be released by the Indian authorities.
She said that at this stage they were not in a romantic relationship but a "very good friendship''.
Miss Hardman said she was reassured about the situation because she was dealing with the fake lawyer, Rod Thompson.
She said: "My stomach was telling me something wasn't right but because I was getting the legal documents, I assumed everything was above board.''
She said she had some reservations because she had expected the solicitor to communicate only with the client and not with her as a friend.
At the same time, she was still getting "affectionate'' emails from Richards.
Miss Hardman, who had recently divorced, said she then paid £30,000 to pay for a tax on the transfer of the funds back to the UK.
Breaking down in tears, Miss Hardman said that she paid out a further £125,000 to cover the full taxation on the £1.5 million.
By this stage she told Richards that she could not afford any more because it was using up all of her savings.
She said: "I wasn't prepared to pay any more but my thinking was at the time I had paid so much beforehand and if I didn't continue I wouldn't get any of it back.''
She was then told that Richards' father had another property in South Africa and she made two final payments of £8,000 in December 2012 in connection with this.
But when she called the hotel where he was meant to be staying in South Africa, she was told no one with his name had been staying there.
Miss Hardman said the situation finished after she talked to a friend at work who advised her to contact the police, which she did.
She said: "Up until then, no one knew.''
She said the last contact she had was on Christmas Day 2012, when she had a message which said: "Seasons greetings, it's Rod Thompson.''
She said it made her feel "sick to my stomach''.
The case was adjourned until tomorrow.
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