SUNDAY TIMES - Cyber scam that stole hearts, cash of lonely women
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Sunday Times News By MONICA LAGANPARSAD, 2016-03-13

Cyber scam that stole hearts, cash of lonely women

Brigadier Piet Pieterse, head of the Hawks cybercrime unit, and his colleague Colonel Rapula Mosito played a huge role in talking down a romance scam and card fraud syndicate operating from Pretoria
Image: MADELINE CRONJE

On New Year's Day, dressed in her white wedding dress, Elizabeth, along with her local pastor and family, waited at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for her future husband to arrive from South Africa.

The bride-to-be was anxious - it would be her first face-to-face meeting with the man she met on an internet dating site.

He had told her he was a US soldier stationed in South Africa.

They chatted online for about eight months, he charming her with affectionate posts, and she making several money transfers to him. She was in love and so was he - he said.

But he did not disembark with the other passengers. Growing fearful, she thought he might have missed his flight. So she called him.

The man on the other side of the line answered and said curtly: ''Are you crazy? Do you actually think I would fly all that way to marry someone I haven't met? You've been scammed."

She had been blinded by love and had sent the man she loved a small fortune when he pleaded for emergency cash.

The heartbroken and humiliated Elizabeth is among the hundreds of ditched women across the US, the UK and Canada who were swindled out of millions of rands by a syndicate operating from Pretoria.

Olayinka Sunmola romanced women worldwide Image: MADELINE CRONJE

This network, set up by a sophisticated Nigerian internet fraud syndicate in 2009, ran a romance scam alongside a smooth credit card hustle, which enabled them to steal more than R70-million from foreign victims over six years.

South Africa's elite cybercrime unit attached to the Hawks swooped on the scamsters and shut down the multimillion enterprise in a top-level police operation in collaboration with US authorities and the UK's Scotland Yard.

Colonel Rapula Mosito, head of the South African leg of the operation, said such romance scams were a global phenomenon.

''We had two phases in this investigation. In the first phase we arrested 11 Nigerians, who were identified and extradited to the US to face trial for fraud," Mosito said.

The modus operandi of the syndicate included hacking into victims' bank accounts and stealing credit details.

''They would purchase things online, spending millions of rands ... They were buying expensive electronic equipment, like iPads and laptops, which was shipped to South Africa to be distributed in West Africa," Mosito said.

A sting operation was set up and the syndicate was arrested. It wasn't long after that the unit was contacted again by the US authorities who had spent two years building a solid case against a man identified as the romance scam's kingpin.

''They knew he was in South Africa but they didn't know who he was or where he was operating from," explained Mosito.

Olayinka Ilumsa Sunmola posed as a divorced US soldier on dating sites such as Match.com and pof.com (plenty of fish) and targeted divorced or widowed women aged between 40 and 60 who had children.

''This man would profess his love for these women for months and eventually come up with emergencies like his child had a medical emergency and he needed money. So they would send him thousands of dollars," said Mosito.

While only 46 victims have come forward, more than 100 women had fallen victim to the charms of the romance pundit, he said.

Only a few come forward because they are embarrassed, humiliated and feel stupid for falling for the con

''They cast their net very wide. And some of these women sold their houses, took bank loans and bankrupted themselves to give him money."

The women had paid between R3,000 and R1.4-million to a man they had never met, Mosito said.

In one of the most shocking cases, one of the victims gave Sunmola, 32, her life savings, sold her house and even took out bank loans. She eventually filed for bankruptcy.

Mosito said Sunmola arrived in South Africa in 2007 on a business visa with the assigned role to lure vulnerable women.

He bought four properties, paying cash - three houses in Pretoria North and one in Benmore in Sandton.

A house in Theresa Park was the headquarters. During a search in 2014, police recovered six laptops, 20 cellphones and several external hard drives.

Sunmola was travelling in the UK. In a joint operation with Scotland Yard, he was arrested at Heathrow Airport in August 2014 after an Interpol red notice had been issued. He was extradited to the US to stand trial.

The house in Theresa Park, northern Pretoria, where the syndicate had its headquarters Image: MADELINE CRONJE

Last week, Mosito flew to East St Louis, Illinois, to testify against Sunmola, who was facing eight counts of fraud.

After two days of testimony from a dozen witnesses, Sunmola opted to plead guilty.

He was indicted on charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy, and interstate extortion. One victim testified how he had sent her flowers, stuffed animals, greeting cards and chocolates.

The woman testified how she was unwittingly drawn into a scheme involving counterfeit or stolen traveller's cheques. She was arrested by US police and jailed, and charged with theft by deception and forgery.

Sunmola now faces up to 127 years in a US prison and a fine of R2-million.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the Asset Forfeiture Unit auctioned off Sunmola's four homes last year.

National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Luvuyo Mfaku said: ''Currently processes are under way to repatriate approximately R2.8-million to the US for victim compensation."

Brigadier Piet Pieterse, head of the South African cybercrime unit, said there were probably hundreds of victims worldwide.

"But only a few come forward because they are embarrassed, humiliated and feel stupid for falling for the con," he said.

WARNING SIGNS OF A POTENTIAL CONMAN

• Men who always have an excuse not to meet you in person;

• Men who claim to be medical specialists, engineers and in the armed forces are a red flag;

• Men who are either divorced or widowed with children;

• Men who plead for money for a family emergency.

HOW DO THEY DO IT?

• Fake profiles are set up on all dating sites;

• Fake photos of their "children" are posted;

• An online relationship is cultivated over a six- to eight-month period before the plea for cash is made;

• During the wooing phase, the man professes his love for the victim and in most cases proposes marriage;

• There will always be a crisis or a situation that requires urgent attention and money, which is usually wired through agencies like Western Union.