South African police arrest eight men suspected of targeting widows in romance scams

The gang concocted "sob stories" to lure their victims into parting with cash.

South African police have arrested eight suspects in connection to romance scams that defrauded at least 100 women.

The gang used "sob stories" as a lure to push women -- including widows and divorcees -- to give them money, as reported by the BBC

Law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the Secret Service, and Europol, estimate that over the course of the scam, victims suffered close to $7 million in losses. 

According to Cape Town police, the suspects were arrested in an organized raid at multiple locations in the early morning of October 19. Ranging in age from 33 to 52 years old, the suspects are allegedly tied to a wider transnational organized crime syndicate in Nigeria known as the "Black Axe". 

TimesLive reports that Black Axe has been operating romance scams since 2011.

"It is alleged that these suspects, allegedly preyed on victims, many of whom are vulnerable widows or divorcees who were led to believe that they were in a genuine romantic relationship but were scammed out of their hard-earned money," local police claim. "The suspects used social media websites, online dating websites to find and connect with their victims."

The sob stories employed by the suspects included a multitude of reasons as to why they needed cash, and quickly. The lines fed to their victims related to taxes that needed to be paid before inheritances were secured; travel overseas for emergencies, and pleas to help them get out of "crippling debt."

In some cases, payments of 100 million rand (ZAR), roughly $6,800, were made. 

The gang not only trolled dating apps and websites in the hunt for victims -- they were also allegedly part of Business Email Compromise (BEC) schemes in which email accounts were compromised. When businesses attempted to make payments, the bank details they used were covertly changed to those controlled by the cybercriminals. 

Many of the alleged victims are located in the United States, however, South African law enforcement says that the organization also hit those close by -- including "neighbors, parents, friends, and family."

US prosecutors have applied to have the suspects extradited. The suspects face charges of aggravated identity theft, money laundering, and conspiracy to commit wire & mail fraud. 

"The fraudsters intimidated and berated their victims, ruined their lives, and then disappeared," the South African police service said in a statement. "We are confident that this investigation will have a significant impact on this region and beyond."

The FBI estimates that $133 million has been lost in romance scams over the course of 2021. 

In September, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) convicted a former US Army reservist for operating romance and BEC scams. Together with a co-defendant, the scam artist raked in approximately $1.8 million.

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