GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — When it comes to sweetheart scams, sometimes it’s not money the crook is after. Instead, it’s an unsuspecting accomplice. That’s what happened to a West Michigan woman in 2015.
She unwittingly became an active part in a scam that cost victims thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise.
“That’s a little scary for her: All of the sudden she’s got the police and prosecutors (after her) and she’s getting involved in the criminal justice system,” Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker told 24 Hour News 8 Tuesday.
Target 8 has chosen not to identify the woman because she was never charged with a crime. She declined to speak with Target 8, but police reports and search warrants tell the story.
The woman, who is in her 50s, met a man online. He told her he was overseas at the time and kept promising to come visit her in West Michigan.
As their friendship blossomed, she allowed him to have packages shipped to the Kent County home where she was living. Once received, she would forward the packages to an address in Nigeria. She told deputies that he claimed the items were gifts for people and he didn’t trust them to be shipped directly to him. The items included a cellphone, watch, jewelry, an Apple Watch and a laptop.
She also received checks in the mail, which she would cash and send the money to the Bola, Nigeria.
The “gifts” were actually items purchased online on websites like eBay. According to investigators, the scammer bought the items online, then sent the seller emails that appeared to be from PayPal and eBay, telling the seller that payment was made and it was safe to ship the item. However, the items had not been paid for and it was all a sham.
The seller would ship the item to West Michigan, where the local woman would forward them on to Nigeria. She told investigators she forwarded about 10 packages in all.
The scam fell apart in November 2015, when one of the victims contacted the Kent County Sheriff’s Department. He thought he had sold a Rolex watch on eBay in October for $8,500 but was never paid, despite what emails from the fraud claimed.
The Kent County Sheriff’s Department went to the shipping address and found the local woman had already moved, but there was another package waiting at the house. Inside was a $9,000 Breitling Chronomat watch, also recently purchased on eBay. The watch had shipped from California and the seller was unaware they had been scammed until they were contacted by the Kent County Sheriff’s Department.
Around this time, the relationship between the scammer and the West Michigan woman was going south.
He told her he was in Israel and was promising to come to Grand Rapids soon. However, she told investigators he had made similar promises in the past and never visited.
She said she had recently told the man that she was not going to be involved with him and had given up.
“From the outset you’re like, ‘How can somebody be that stupid?’ Well, unfortunately, people are, because they’re preyed on their emotions and it makes you stupid,” Becker said.
The woman told investigators that she thought she was just doing a favor for a friend and that she never kept any of the money or the items that came in the mail.
The Kent County Prosecutor’s Office chose not to charge the woman. Prosecutor Chris Becker told Target 8 there is no evidence she knew she was taking part in a scam.
“We couldn’t press charges on her because I think she was just kind of the stooge, if you will,” Becker said. “Thinking that she’s doing him a favor when really, he was scamming other people.”
The Kent County Sheriff’s Department tracked the scammers’ email to an IP address in Fort Pierce, Florida.
Local authorities handed the case over to the FBI in December 2015. It is not clear if the FBI was able to find the con man and press charges.
BBB WARNS OF ROMANCE SCAMS
In most romance scam cases, victims are conned into sending money to the crooks. On Tuesday, a Kent County woman explained to 24 Hour News 8 how she lost $30,000 in just a few months after being duped.
The Better Business Bureau of Western Michigan has issued a new warning about romance scams. In the U.S. over the past three years alone, victims in these types of scams have reported $884 million in losses.
A new study (PDF) outlines how big the problem has become and explains what you should do if you think you may have fallen victim to this type of scam.
–24 Hour News 8’s Evan Dean contributed to this report.