Crime

California Woman Scammed Out Of $250,000 In Romance Scam

A woman from California, who is 69 years old, believed she had found her ideal partner and had even intended to tie the knot with him. However, her plans were disrupted when she uncovered that her intended spouse was a 26-year-old fraudster from Nigeria.

According to Laura Francis, who spoke with the media, she received a Facebook message from a man called David Hodge. The individual claimed to be a military surgeon involved in a covert mission for the Marines in North Korea, where he was assisting soldiers wounded by explosives in the conflict.

After stating that his ex-wife had been unfaithful to him and that he had been in relationships with younger women, he expressed a desire to find a more mature partner. In the following months, Francis engaged in text conversations and Google Hangouts with this enigmatic individual, in an effort to get to know him better.

Francis characterized him as attractive, alluring, and romantic, noting that he sent her affectionate messages and serenaded her with love songs on a daily basis. When he professed his love for her, Francis, who had never tied the knot, quickly became enamored. She even shelled out $10,000 on cool sculpting procedures to enhance her appearance and look as stunning as possible for her new beau.

Several weeks after they began their romantic relationship, Hodge requested that Francis loan him some money. He claimed that he did not have access to his accounts, but promised to repay her in full once he left the service. He directed her to transfer the funds through Bitcoin apps, specifically Coin Base and Coin Cloud Bitcoin ATMs.

During their relationship, he requested money from Francis on two separate occasions. The first time was for $5,500, which he claimed he needed to purchase a new iPhone, as he had misplaced his during one of his secret missions. Afterward, he asked for an additional $7,000, so that he could communicate with her on his friend's phones while he awaited the arrival of his new phone.

The funds that Francis sent to Hodge were a portion of her daughter's inheritance. When she expressed her reservations and began to scrutinize his motives, he furnished her with a bank statement from an Ohio bank, demonstrating that he had a balance of $3 million. The statement contained a Chase Bank PO Box address. He also provided her with an employment agreement from the Marines and his passport, which Francis shared with DailyMail.com.

As Hodge expressed his love and desire to marry her, Francis also began to feel the same butterflies in her stomach.

Hodge informed Francis that he could acquire an engagement ring through a military program and that the process required him to demonstrate that he had a fiancée. This, in turn, would enable him to terminate his three-year military contract. He indicated that the only thing she needed to do was to provide $42,568 to cover the cost of the ring.

Following the transfer of funds, Francis received a letter from the ring appraiser and eagerly awaited the arrival of the ring. However, when the package finally arrived, she discovered a cheap cubic zirconia ring with a price tag of $9.99 inside the box, rather than the princess-cut diamond ring that Hodge had purportedly chosen.

When Francis confronted Hodge about the ring, he informed her that an error had occurred and that he was in the process of resolving the issue.

"I wanted to believe all the b******t. He'd tell me, "how much he loved me and that he was so happy he had me in his life," I believed in him."

Francis divulged to DailyMail.com that she did not disclose her relationship with Hodge to any of her friends or family, as Hodge had advised her to wait until they could announce their engagement together.

Francis' daughter, who was doubtful of her mother's new love interest and unaware that her mother had already sent her newfound companion thousands of dollars, urged her to join the dating website Plenty of Fish.

Upon joining the dating site, Francis quickly encountered another attractive stranger named Robert Manguire.

Upon viewing Manguire's profile, Francis discovered that he was an oil rig executive who resided in Los Angeles, which piqued her interest. However, she later discovered that he was actually from Louisiana.

As the two conversed more frequently, Francis disclosed to Manguire that she was in love with another man but suspected that he might be deceiving her.

Manguire offered to assist Francis in resolving her predicament, claiming that he had the skill to hack into computers. He also cautioned Francis that the individual she had fallen in love with was deceiving her and that David Hodge was, in fact, a man named Dom.

"I felt that I could trust Robert because he was the one who told me that David Hodge was really Dom,' she said. 'I told him how much I had spent."

"I did what Robert told me to do. I blocked David and reported his account and then took it down," she said.

Manguire then informed Francis that he had notified the military, where Hodge was deployed, about his sharing of insider information.

Upon learning that the man she planned to marry was being arrested for espionage and spying, Francis became frantic and managed to come up with nearly $60,000 to bail him out.

Manguire informed Francis that he could assist her in recovering her money from the blockchain, but he instructed her to deposit funds into a Bitcoin account in order to do so.

"He was showing me all the screenshots of the of the money he was getting back. He had me running back and forth. I kept on giving him more money to get all the money out of the account - a total of $159,400."

Francis said that just when she was about to get her money back, Manguire suddenly became unreachable for several hours.

Francis eventually discovered the harsh reality that she had fallen prey to two different online scammers who swindled her in a cryptocurrency scam, leading to a whopping loss of $250,000.

"It was all a lie," she said. "They were working together. They put the whole scam together from the beginning."

She added: "It's really painful because I really cared for the guy. I was in love with David and I was devastated."

Catfishing refers to the act of creating a false identity on a social networking platform to deceive and lure someone into a relationship, often with the intention of financial gain.

DailyMail.com was informed by Social Catfish that the scammers used stolen images of the two men to deceive people online, and the individuals in the photos were not involved in the scam.

DailyMail.com was unsuccessful in its attempt to contact both men whose photos were stolen, as their accounts are now private.

According to Francis, all the money that was exchanged was in the form of bitcoin. She stated that the money was transferred into different bitcoin wallets, and one of the reasons for using bitcoin was to prevent tracing. However, she later discovered that bitcoin can be traced.

In an interview with DailyMail.com, she revealed that she is currently collaborating with Social Catfish to recover some of the money she lost. Social Catfish is in contact with the Nigerian government to facilitate the recovery process.

"These guys have this down to a science... they are good. They use all these scripts to scam women. I am not a dumb person but I did a stupid thing. I was naïve, and vulnerable."

Romance scams are on the rise, with scammers making away with a whopping $547 million in 2021 - a significant increase from $304 million in 2019. The numbers are predicted to go up during Valentine's Day, which presents an ideal opportunity for scammers to target dating apps and social media platforms in search of vulnerable singles seeking love and companionship.

Francis's story is not an uncommon one, according to Social Catfish, a company that employs reverse image searches to verify online identities.

"Once money is sent it is often extremely difficult to retrieve," Social Catfish President David McClellan said. "The only recourse is either ask these institutions crypto exchanges to either reverse funds to give money back or get law enforcement involved or a lawyer."

McClellan said his company is with the Nigerian government on Francis' case. "We have contacts over in Nigeria - the ESCC, similar to the CIA or FBI - that are in charge of financial crimes in Nigeria are actively working on this case."

According to Francis, who spent most of the money using a crypto ATM machine called Coin Cloud, they were able to trace the crypto transaction back to the exchanges, including NairaEx, a prominent crypto exchange in Nigeria.

"Anytime we are able to take funds back to an exchange, we can get law enforcement involved and file the KYC - Know Your Customer- request to find out who owns the account and that is what we did."

After filing the KYC request, they were able to trace it back to Nigeria and discovered additional crypto wallets containing money that had not been emptied.

"That's really good news when we actually trace it back to an exchange," he said.

There have not been any arrests so far. However, the person who was scammed Francis is no longer using the crypto accounts.

The company indicated that they could only trace one IP address in this instance and could not confirm whether there was any other perpetrator involved in this specific case.

McClellan stated that since the majority of scam victims do not recover their funds, Social Catfish is seeking to collaborate with law enforcement agencies and legal firms to address this issue.

"If you really think about it, these people are sending either wire transfer or they're sending crypto or they're sending gift cards so this stuff can be traced," he said.

According to McClellan, Nigeria and Ghana are the two most common regions where scams like Francis' originate, while the Philippines and Russia are also recognized as hotspots for this type of fraudulent activity.

They trace the origin of the person by identifying their IP address, and the incidence of these scams has risen by triple digits over the last three years, according to him.

"The education is super, super important and a big part in stopping this," he said. "And, every single time we think we have a crazy story ...next week we have a crazier one...it is just insane."

According to McClellan, Chris, a former scammer from Nigeria, is among those striving to put an end to these scams.

Having stolen $30,000 from a woman in a romance scam, Chris was identified by Social Catfish and subsequently agreed to collaborate with the company. He now works in Nigeria to assist Social Catfish in infiltrating criminal groups in the region.

As a child, the reformed romance scammer grew up in poverty in Nigeria, and scamming was one of the few available opportunities for him.

According to McClellan, many scammers refer to their victims as their "clients."

"It's really sad. There's so much corruption... so much stuff happens that people feel like they should be on their own," he said.

"Even if you go and you work it doesn't mean you can get paid ... even if you work for the government."

They are currently in the process of developing software to assist law enforcement in apprehending suspected scammers.

As per The Daily Beast report, wire transfers and apps like Venmo are the most commonly used payment methods in romance scams.

As per a report by Privacy Affairs, scammers primarily use Bitcoin (70%), followed by Tether (10%) and Ether (9%).

Instagram (32%), Facebook (26%), WhatsApp (9%), and Telegram (7%) are the most commonly utilized social media platforms for crypto scams.

Starting in 2021, the majority of reported crypto scams and losses began with a post, message, or advertisement on a social media platform.

Social Catfish reported that, based on the most recent FBI and FTC data released in 2022, the top five states with the most victims of 'catfishing' are California (3,023 victims lost $184 million), Florida (1,738 victims lost $70.4 million), Texas (1,752 victims lost $65.4 million), New York (1,168 victims lost $57.6 million), and Washington (657 victims lost $32 million).

According to McClellan, while he is optimistic that some of Francis' funds will be recovered, it is challenging to predict precisely how much of the $250,000 will be retrieved.

Francis is now sharing her experience with others, highlighting the warning signs to watch out for, in order to prevent others from becoming victims like herself. Many of those she shares her story with are from the Facebook group, Scam Haters United.

"My mission is life is to try and help others not to fall into this trap," she said.

She has compiled a list of warning signs to be aware of and shares these tips with numerous other victims she comes across.