CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A federal jury in Charlotte has convicted Michael Moore, 39, a Liberian national residing in the Philadelphia area, for his involvement in an online romance scam that targeted older adults, announced William T. Stetzer, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. U.S. District Judge Robert J. Conrad Jr. presided over the two-day trial which ended late yesterday.
Ronnie Martinez, Special Agent in Charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Charlotte, and Barry Chastain, Port Director of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Area in Charlotte join Acting U.S. Attorney Stetzer in making today’s announcement.
According to court documents, trial evidence, and witness testimony, beginning in January 2016, Moore and others engaged in a fraudulent scheme to defraud unsuspecting victims, many of whom were in or near retirement, by perpetrating an online romance scam. Trial evidence established that Moore and his co-conspirators generally targeted victims through Facebook, senior dating websites, and other social media platforms, convincing them through online communications that they were romantically interested in them. The fraudsters, who often said they were overseas for work, would then start asking for money, often falsely telling the victims the money was for plane tickets or to otherwise facilitate their travel to visit the victim. After the victim initially sent money as requested, Moore and his fellow fraudsters would tell additional lies about additional fees or costs that purportedly has to be paid to facilitate the visit from the person who purported to be in love with the victim. Evidence at trial showed that Moore and his fellow fraudsters would continue to solicit money from victims till they had no more money left.
Trial evidence showed that Moore served the fraud scheme as the “money man” or “bag man” purchasing one way tickets and flying around the country to meet unsuspecting victims and pick up cash from them in multiple cities. Moore was caught trying to fly out of Charlotte with $75,000 in cash, which he had taken from one of the victims. Evidence at trial also showed Moore taking pictures and making videos bragging with piles of cash taken from victims.
The evidence also showed that victims were repeatedly directed to deposit money into accounts held in the names of third parties. In total, Moore and his co-conspirators stole over $1.5 million from at least 30 victims through this fraud scheme.
The evidence at trial further established that Moore lied to CBP officers and ICE-HSI agents when he was questioned at Charlotte Douglas International Airport after being caught attempting to carry $75,000 in cash through airport security. Instead of telling law enforcement the truth – that he had received the cash from a victim the previous day – he told them a story about receiving the money from a Liberian government official to buy used cars. Later, Moore made similar false statements and representations on a federal form in an attempt to have the $75,000 returned to him.
The jury convicted Moore of wire fraud, which carries a maximum prison term of 20 years and a $250,000 fine, and two counts of making a false statement to an agency of the United States, which carries a maximum prison term of five years and a $250,000 fine.
In making today’s announcement, Acting U.S. Attorney Stetzer thanked CBP and HSI for handling the investigation.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Maria Vento and Daniel Ryan, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte, are in charge of the prosecution.
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The U.S. Attorney’s Office Elder Justice Initiative aims to combat elder financial exploitation by expanding efforts to investigate and prosecute financial scams that target seniors; educate older adults on how to identify scams and avoid becoming victims of financial fraud; and promote greater coordination with law enforcement partners. For more information please visit: https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdnc/elder-justice-initiative
Examples of financial scams targeting seniors are:
- Lottery phone scams – in which the callers convince seniors that a large fee or taxes must be paid before they can receive lottery winnings.
- Grandparent scams – which convince seniors that their grandchildren are in trouble and need money to make rent, repair a car, or even money for bail.
- Romance scams – which lull victims to believe that their online paramour needs funds for a U.S. visit or some other purpose.
- IRS imposter scams – which defraud victims by posing as IRS agents and claiming that victims owe back taxes.
- Sham business opportunities – which convince victims to invest in lucrative business opportunities or investments.
To avoid falling victim to a financial scam:
- Don’t share personal information with anyone you don’t know.
- Don’t pay a fee for a prize or lottery winning.
- Don’t click on pop-up ads or messages.
- Delete phishing emails and ignore harassing phone calls.
- Don’t send gift cards, checks, money orders, wire money, or give your bank account information to a stranger.
- Don’t fall for a high-pressure sales pitch or a lucrative business deal.
- If a scammer approaches you, take the time to talk to a friend or family member.
- Keep in mind that if you send money once, you’ll be a target for life.
- Remember, it’s not rude to say, “NO.”
- A good rule of thumb is, if it’s too good to be true, it’s likely a scam.
If you have been contacted by a scammer or believe you have fallen victim to a scam, please contact the Justice Department’s Elder Fraud Hotline at 1-833-Fraud-11 (1-833-372-8311). The National Elder Fraud hotline was created for the public to report fraud against individuals who are age 60 or older. The hotline is open seven days a week. For more information about the hotline, please visit https://stopelderfraud.ovc.ojp.gov/.