Missouri man linked to romance scam that bilked veterans, elderly out of $1 million, feds say

By ROBERT PATRICK | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: November 26, 2019

FLORISSANT, Mo. (Tribune News Service) — A man from Florissant is linked to a romance scam to defraud a dozen elderly men and women around the country of nearly $1 million, federal prosecutors said Monday.

One 82-year-old Wisconsin veteran spent decades living frugally, his relatives told federal agents, then sent his entire retirement savings of about $140,000 in just 16 months to a woman he’d met online. The woman claimed to be working overseas, and said she needed money for passport costs, plane tickets and other travel costs so she could come back to the U.S., charging documents say.

The veteran used FedEx and regular mail, but also sent $12,500 in three Priority Mail packages this spring to an address in unincorporated St. Louis County where Hammed Akande, 39, once lived with his wife, charges say. There were at least 55 other Priority Mail packages sent to that address from around the country from January to Oct. 10, according to an affidavit by Matt Villicana, a supervisory inspector with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

Many were addressed to a series of names that do not match Akande or his wife, including Wale Akinmerin, Akinyemi Jonson, Wale Martins and Dele Akinfeso, court records show.

The affidavit mentions but doesn’t name a 77-year-old woman from Maine, a person from Pennsylvania in his or her 60s, a 63-year-old Arkansas woman, someone from New Jersey, someone from Kentucky, men from Colorado and South Carolina, and a St. Louis woman who lost more than $30,000.

Akande, referred to as a predator by one prosecutor, was indicted Nov. 20 on a single charge of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tracy Berry told U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Cohen on Monday that the investigation was ongoing and she expected to add charges.

Berry declined to comment on details of the case Monday, but warned people involved in online dating to be “very vigilant.”

Romance scammers use fake names, stolen photos and false stories on online dating sites and social media accounts to lure their victims, Villicana wrote in the affidavit, often claiming to be in the military or working overseas so they have a reason they can’t meet in person. To avoid law enforcement, scammers sometimes use “mules” to receive and then forward cash and valuables. The mules can be co-conspirators or victims, Villicana wrote, and use anonymous prepaid debit cards, virtual currency transactions and peer-to-peer financial apps to move money.

Akande’s lawyer, Steven Sokolik, pointed out last week that the charges were “merely an accusation,” and that Akande is presumed innocent. In court Monday, he sought Akande’s release from jail pending trial, saying Akande had no criminal record, had been working for the last four years and recently had a child with his girlfriend.

A neighbor of Akande’s wife said that the almost daily delivery of packages to their address has dwindled. Federal agents arrived around 5 a.m. Nov. 1 to search the house and search through the wife’s trash, she said.

A note posted on the mailbox now says that mail should be left only for Akande, his wife and her daughter.

Villicana wrote that Akande’s wife was home, and told investigators she met Akande through a Facebook instant message. She went to Nigeria and married him in 2013. Both moved to the U.S. in 2015, although she said Akande had not lived with her for several years. She told Villicana that Akande still received packages there, including cellphones that he shipped on to Nigeria, the affidavit says.

One woman named “Mary” came to the home last month to ask for the return of cellphones and cash worth a total of $3,000, Akande’s wife told Villicana.

Villicana also found envelopes and packages in the trash that had been mailed or shipped by the Maine woman and the men from South Carolina and Colorado, the affidavit said.

The St. Louis woman listed in Akande’s indictment, who is in her 60s, began an online romance with someone in August who told her he was from Colorado and had a business in Ukraine. She sent him cash to help his business, only to discover that he was using the name of someone who had been victimized in a romance scam. He convinced her to keep sending money, claiming that everything was true but his name, charging documents say.

The investigation began when the Wisconsin man’s family contacted the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

The Wisconsin man emailed, texted or used Google Hangouts to communicate with the scammer. They never met in person or communicated via FaceTime or Skype. He sent cash to Florissant, wired money to a Hong Kong account or deposited money other ways, Villicana wrote.

The penalties for running a romance scam can be severe, if the fraud is widespread.

In 2017, one person was sentenced to 27 years in prison in U.S. District Court in East St. Louis for scamming hundreds of women online.

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