Thursday, September 06, 2012
Cyperpath Posed as Iraq War Soldier
by Harriet Alexander
(U.K.) Sarah Cook thought she had met someone special. The mother of two children had done what many lonely Britons do, and registered with an internet dating site.
Within weeks of entering a new online world of flirtation and romance, she met a US army sergeant serving in Iraq. They would chat online almost daily, swapping stories about his life on base with hers in a West Country town, and over the next 18 months their relationship deepened.
Mrs Cook, 52, was fascinated by his stories of dodging bombs, coping with explosions and living in the Iraqi desert. She would not say she was falling in love, but she was excited by this intriguing soldier with whom she felt she had a genuine connection — so much so that she was willing to help him financially. But the charming American was not what he appeared. A few days ago, police in Ghana arrested Maurice Asola Fadola, 31, the man suspected of posing as the soldier and conning Mrs Cook out of £271,000.
Her case is thought to be the most serious example of a new kind of fraud, with international con men preying on emotionally vulnerable westerners. Police estimate that Britons are losing hundreds of millions of pounds through internet dating sites in “romance frauds”. Mrs Cook (not her real name) does not appear a gullible or foolish woman. Yet, like other victims of the frauds, she was slowly and skilfully drawn in to a web of deceit woven by a resourceful and apparently talented liar. Over months of online chatting she felt that she was really getting to know the American soldier, who went by the name of Steven Westmore.
He told her he was a year younger than her, and was ready to leave the army. He had a house in Texas, his son was studying medicine and his wife had died in a car crash — a common line used by such con men, police say. He sent her pictures depicting himself as a rugged, stetson-wearing American. She hoped they could meet once he left Iraq. But when that time came, Steven told her things had gone wrong. “We never spoke on the phone, as he told me they weren’t allowed mobile phones on army bases,” she said. “But one day, over instant messenger, Steven told me he had a problem. He was preparing to leave and had sent his luggage back to the States with a friend, a diplomat from Trinidad, who had to travel via Ghana.
“But the Ghanaian authorities had impounded Steven’s luggage, and so I had to call Steven’s friend in Ghana to sort it out. And it turned out the friend needed £2,300 to release the luggage. “I relayed this information to Iraq. And Steven said, 'I can’t do anything from here in the desert. Can you help?’ ” Mrs Cook took the first step down what proved to be a slippery slope to financial disaster. She sent the money to Ghana via MoneyGram on the promise that she would be repaid once Steven was back home.
But this was just the beginning. Next day she was told there were further problems and more money was needed: £20,000. Steven let Mrs Cook know that inside the suitcases was $8 million (£5.2 million) he had smuggled out of Iraq. Most people, however kindly disposed, would surely have baulked at this point and, with hindsight, Mrs Cook can see that for herself. But although her husband knew she had been on a dating website, the couple operated a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach within their marriage and Mrs Cook had told no one about her online relationship with Steven. There was nobody to make her see common sense.
“I just thought, 'Oh no, what have I got myself into here?’ ” Mrs Cook said last week, wiping away tears. “I wanted to get my money back, and you end up thinking, well, if there is $8 million there, it doesn’t matter having to spend money as I will get my money back once the suitcases are released.” Now dealing solely by telephone with the contact in Ghana, who told her that Steven was without internet access in Iraq, Mrs Cook became embroiled in a lengthy process to get her money back. Like a gambler trying to recoup her losses, the amount she was willing to spend to try to solve the problems rose — £100,000 for “legal fees”, £40,000 for “customs costs” and many thousands more. She extended her overdraft, sold shareholdings and drained her retirement savings. Piece by piece, she dismantled the product of years of abstemious living — all the while concealing the truth from her husband, whose financial affairs were separate.
Mrs Cook sometimes found it hard to believe the intrigue in which she was caught up: a world of five-digit money transfers to Africa, suitcases full of money and a constantly evolving cast of characters, helpers of Steven, all needing her help to overcome one problem after another. She was then persuaded by the “diplomat” to travel to Ghana — without telling anybody — where she hoped to conclude the protracted attempts to get her money back. “I was really worried — I’d never been to Africa before,” Mrs Cook recalled. “But the diplomat told me it would speed things up, and I’d get my money back. “I paid £500 for a 'visa’ and then someone just came to collect me from the airport and took me straight through customs — I suppose people at the airport were in on it, too.”
She was driven to a lavish house on the outskirts of the capital, Accra. Guarded by rottweilers, it was a gold-plated and marble villa, complete with a gym, a swimming pool and a wardrobe bursting with unworn designer clothes. Police suspect the property belonged to Fadola, who posed as the diplomat during Mrs Cook’s visit. The house may well have been built and furnished with the funds she sent to Ghana. “I was scared at first,” she said. “When I look back, it’s terrifying thinking about what could have happened when I went there. I could have been kidnapped. It doesn’t bear thinking about.”
She stayed for two nights and it was on her return that Fadola, describing himself as a business associate, came into the picture under his own name, with police alleging that he offered to travel to Britain to pay back Mrs Cook in person. So she supported his visa application. “And that was another £10,000 for the paperwork,” she said, managing a faint smile. “I sent him a payslip; an electricity bill; a council tax bill; household documents — all those things you’re not supposed to send out. “I just wanted to get my money back, and then maybe finally meet Steven — who I believed was still in Iraq.”
In fact, Fadola’s attempts to seek a British visa were his undoing. It disclosed his true identity to the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), which was working with the Ghanian police in connection with the case of a disabled woman who was persuaded to sell her house and send funds to Ghana. One night in March, the police knocked on Mrs Cook’s door and asked her if she knew a Maurice Asola Fadola. Sitting in the London offices of SOCA last week, Mrs Cook said she still struggled to come to terms with how the situation escalated.
“You look back and think, 'How could I be so stupid?’ I’d never heard about these romance frauds before,” she said. “I thought that there was this poor man stuck in Ghana because of something Steven had done. And it had been passed over to me to help him. I thought it was all my fault.”
Fadola is in prison in Ghana facing questioning over money laundering and passport fraud. SOCA officers went to the country last month to help mount a “sting” operation and caught him when he went approached officials to access some money they had sent. “He showed no emotion,” said one of the SOCA officers. “I just said 'Hello Steven’ as he was led away in handcuffs.” The case is not an isolated one. “At first we thought it was just people sending £50 here or there,” said Colin Woodcock, the head of SOCA’s fraud department, “but some people are being robbed of hundreds of thousands.”
More and more cases of romance fraud are being discovered. In August last year, Philip Hunt, 58, threw himself under a train after losing £82,000 in a romance fraud. He had met a Nigerian girl on the internet, who convinced him to spend the money with promises of starting a life together. “These people are out to get people when they are very vulnerable and at a low ebb. They’re in there like vultures,” Mr Hunt’s former partner told the inquest into his death.
It was only recently that Mrs Cook told her husband what had happened, admitting the full extent of her losses in a telephone call. She did not want to discuss his reaction. Police hope to recover some of the £271,000 that she lost. “I don’t know if I’ll get the money back,” she said. “I had saved all my life, worked hard, gone without, planning for my retirement. But I don’t think that is going to happen now. “I just feel so stupid.”
original article found here