US law enforcement throw online scam artists behind bars

Romance scams and fraudulent secret shopper schemes were only part of the conspiracy.

US law enforcement has sentenced seven criminals who were part of an online fraud ring which duped victims out of their cash through romance, shopping and job opportunity scams.

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Adrian Serghie, CC BY-SA 2.0 via CNET

On Wednesday, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) said that Chief U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. of the Southern District of Mississippi sentenced seven citizens for their roles in online fraud schemes, which included counterfeit checks, "mystery shopper" websites and fake work-from-home jobs.

According to Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, all seven were members of a "large scale" international fraud ring which also used online dating sites as a platform to coax lonely hearts out of their money.

In addition, the seven were involved in fraudulent mystery shopper and personal assistance job opportunities, in which victims -- believing they had legitimate work -- would be sent checks and instructions for various assignments. The checks, which were counterfeit, would bounce after the criminal ring received funds from victims, destined to be laundered in the US before transferring over to Nigeria.

This left victims liable for the checks and, in many cases, "hundreds of dollars" in bank fines and fees.

Interestingly, some of the defendants started out as romance scam victims themselves before becoming involved as members of the cybercriminal gang.

Funso Hassan, 27, of Ibadan, Nigeria, and Anthony Shane Jeffers, 44, of Maryville, Tennessee, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit identity theft and theft of government property, as well as one count of racketeering and were both sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Other members of the group, 70-year-old Ann Louise Franzen from Kiln, Mississippi, Gary Melvin Barnard, 64, from Palestine, Texas; Michele Gayle Fee, 55, of Stockton, California; Tanya Lynn Thomas, 52, of Turlock, California; and Shawn Ann White, 44, of Manteca, California were each charged with conspiracy to commit identity theft and theft of government property.

The group will spend five years behind bars.

Scams, phishing emails and job opportunities which land in your inbox are now commonplace. While email providers usually do a good job of keeping these schemes in your spam box, there are still many who fall for such schemes -- and in the case of romance-based fraud, this can not only destroy your bank balance, but break your heart, too.

The main takeaway? If an emailed job looks too good to be true, it probably is -- and you should never part with cash for the sake of someone you've only met online.

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