A Ghanaian man accused of posing as a US soldier on an online dating site has been arrested on suspicion of conning a British woman into sending £271,000 to Africa.
In what is thought to be the biggest case of its kind so far, police detained Maurice Asola Fadola, 31, who is thought to be behind a series of "romance frauds" – targeting women through dating sites, and fabricating an elaborate series of stories to convince them to send money to Ghana.
The British victim, who did not want to be named, struck up a relationship over the internet with a man she believed to be an American soldier serving in Iraq.
After several months of correspondance, in which he told of his life dodging bullets and bombs, he told her that he was leaving the army – and perhaps they could meet up. But while his luggage was being returned to the US, there were a series of "problems" which the British woman was enticed into helping out – to the eventual cost of £271,000.
The head of the Ghanaian Serious Fraud Office described Mr Fadola as a suspected "kingpin", and his arrest after months of painstaking intelligence gathering is the high point of a joint Ghanaian-British campaign against alleged romance frauds.
Last month officers from the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) travelled to the Ghanaian capital of Accra to work alongside Ghanaian police in arresting Mr Fadola.
Officers had planned to mount a "sting" operation; setting traps for when he came to collect money they had sent to a money transfer service, or lying in wait for him to pick up a parcel of laptops or mobile phones from the Post Office.
Police froze his bank accounts, and when he came into the Serious Fraud Office in Accra to try and brazen his way into releasing the funds, he was arrested.
Mr Fadola, who lived in a luxurious mansion on the outskirts of Accra, is being held in custody and questioned over money laundering and passport offences, which carry a maximum sentence of 25 years.
Colin Woodcock, head of SOCA's fraud department, said that his team was working alongside Ghanaian authorities, sharing policing techniques with local forces to track down the fraudsters.
"At first we thought it was just people sending £50 here or there," he said, "but although the bulk are small frauds, now we know that some people are being robbed of hundreds of thousands.
"It's an international problem, involving police forces from across the globe working together to squeeze the criminals."
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. They're in there like vultures," Lesley Smith, Mr Hunt's former partner, told the inquest into his death.
Mr Woodcock said: "The bottom line is: don't give anyone your money. Imagine you'd met someone in a pub for the first time, and they said I'd love to see you again but can you buy me a laptop?
"We're seeing an explosion in this. Everyone is on online dating nowadays, and criminals have cottoned onto it. These people destroy lives. It's loss on a catastrophic scale."
2 of EOPC's examples:
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