ST. LOUIS – A federal grand jury indicted 41-year-old Ovuoke Frank Ofikoro, 27-year-old Bonmene Sibe, and 27-year-old Trenice Hassel on charges connected to a romance scam targeting dozens of older women residing throughout the United States. Ofikoro and Sibe face several charges including conspiracy to defraud, mail fraud, and aggravated identity theft while Sibe and Hassel face the additional charge of making false statements to a federal agency.
According to court documents, between sometime around May 2019 until July 31, 2020, Ofikoro, Sibe, and other individuals perpetrated a romance scheme in which the fraudsters pretended to be high-ranking military officers who were deployed overseas. The perpetrators pretended to be romantically interested in the women whose ages ranged between the ages of 45 and 82.
Investigators believe Ofikoro and Sibe worked with others in enticing the women to send United States currency and electronic equipment to St. Louis area post office boxes from various states that included Hawaii, Illinois, Utah, Mississippi, Maryland, and Florida. The value of the currency and equipment mailed through the United States Postal Service had an aggregate value of more than $500,000 with some of the shipments containing as much as $50,000 in currency. Ofikoro and Sibe transferred some of the funds received to accounts of financial institutions located in the Country of Nigeria.
Co-Defendant Hassel assisted the conspirators in using the name of B.M. to fraudulently open one of the St. Louis post office boxes Ofikoro, Sibe, and the others use in the scheme.
If convicted, the violations of conspiracy to defraud and mail fraud carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and the violation of making false statements carries a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. For the violation of aggravated identity theft, Ofikoro and Sibe face a mandatory two year sentence of imprisonment that will be run consecutive to any other term of imprisonment imposed. Restitution is also mandatory.
Charges set forth in the indictment are merely accusations and do not constitute proof of guilty. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent unless and until proven guilty.
The United States Postal Inspection Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigations are investigating this case. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Tracy Berry and Edward Dowd III are handling the case for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The Department of Justice Elder Justice Initiative is dedicated to investigating and prosecuting financial crimes targeting older adults. The Eastern District of Missouri Identity Theft Task Force is a group of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies working together to combat identity theft and its related crimes across the St. Louis Community.
Inspector in Charge William Hedrick, of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, said, “The indictments and arrests in this case not only highlight the investigative efforts of the Postal Inspection Service and its law enforcement partners, but also instills public confidence that those who exploit the elderly through the U.S. Mail will be brought to justice.”
“Romance scams prey on people’s vulnerabilities and cost victims almost half a billion dollars a year,” said Special Agent in Charge Richard Quinn of the FBI St. Louis Division. “If you meet someone online and the person asks you for money, question whether this could be a romance scam. There’s nothing romantic about being swindled out of your life’s savings.”
“Taking advantage of vulnerable individuals is always awful. In particular, these romance scams often succeed against elderly victims who have lost partners or have been isolated due to the pandemic,” said U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen. “Making matters worse, elderly victims are frequently unwilling to discuss financial matters with children and are too embarrassed to report their losses to law enforcement. We need to be vigilant and watch for red flags such as: increased use of internet messaging services; frequent trips to banks and post offices; abnormal requests for money; and increased secrecy.”