WHEN FRAUD TURNS TO MURDER
We all chuckle at the emails to announce that the heir to a foreign fortune wants to give us a hefty chunk of it to help them get it out of the country, the friend requests from European models or silver fox military contractors, and the phone calls from the IRS telling us deputies are on their way to our door with a warrant for our tax-evasion request. But the losses suffered by the ones who don’t hang up or who write back to that email, though a small percentage, are no laughing matter. Reports indicate over 1.5 billion dollars were lost to scammers last year—that’s billion, with a b.
But some have lost more than that.
Romance scams can break more than hearts. Lonely housewife Renee Holland of Pennsylvania sent nearly thirty thousand dollars to a scammer posing as a U.S. soldier in Iraq, then attempted suicide when he didn’t show up at her airport as planned. Her husband, former military himself, tried to understand. They moved to Florida and tried to start over, but the stress of guilt and caring for an elderly father drove her right back into ‘Chris’s’ arms. Two days before Christmas 2018, her husband shot her, her father, and then himself.
The foreign fortune that needs your help to move is commonly called the Nigerian prince scam, or a 419, that number being the criminal code for fraud in Nigeria. Sometimes it’s couched as a business opportunity, sometimes a palatable form of money laundering, or sometimes it’s a pure gift, but will always involve money required up front for ‘fees’ and ‘transfers’ before you ever get that big ol’ check. Jiri Pasovsky, a 72-year-old retired doctor in the Czech Republic, gradually lost his entire life’s savings buying in to a fictitious Nigerian oil business and spent over a year lobbying to get it back. Pasovsky was no stranger to deceit—while a real doctor, he had also been an agent for the Czech secret police under Communist rule. In the 60’s he lived in Afghanistan, pretending to work with a team of Czech doctors but in reality, monitoring his fellow countrymen. He joined the CIA, but only in order to unmask fellow Czechs trying to defect to the States—but his cover disintegrated when a fellow secret agent made it to the west. This work must have been part of the pension he lost to the oil scheme and in 2003 he made the last of his many visits to the Nigerian Embassy there in Prague to demand they recover his funds. There he shot fatally shot diplomat Michael Lekara Wayid, 50, and wounded the man’s receptionist who came to intervene.
The Jamaican version of this is the lottery scam, in which a phone call informs potential victims that they’ve won a prize of millions to be collected…as soon as they pay the taxes on the winnings. Once they get a vulnerable person on the line, the calls don’t stop. In 2015 they hounded dementia patient Albert Poland, 81, out of over five thousand dollars—a relatively small amount in scam land, but enough to drive the retired factory manager to suicide. 68 year old Heidi Muth flew from California to Jamaica to track down her money in 2017; her body was found with multiple stab wounds on a street in Montego Bay. But while the scam produces death in America, it leaves a massacre in Jamaica: over two hundred deaths per year on the island are linked to scam gangs, even after a 2013 law gave prosecutors the tools for sweeping raids and numerous arrests.
Then there’s German expat Christian Gerhartsreiter, who faked the rich and famous lifestyle so well that he made a career of it, churning through identities for nearly thirty years, two marriages, and a double homicide. He spent his last ten years of freedom posing as Clark Rockefeller—yes, of those Rockefellers. Apparently, once you stroll into the club, no one questions whether you belong there. But when his long-suffering wife decided to divorce, she began questioning everything, leading to the discovery of his former landlady’s son buried behind his house. The daughter-in-law’s body has not been found. It didn’t help that Gerhartsreiter had buried two of his own bookbags along with the body, or that he drove the dead man’s truck for several months afterward.
But authorities are fighting back. Indian cybercrime detectives, working with the U.S. and other countries, arrested over two hundred people in one area of their country for running call centers which raked in over $50K a day, mostly from Americans and Canadians. In another case, 24 people in the U.S. are currently sitting in jail for running an IRS scam in which they would launder the money an Indian call center wrung out, one prepaid gift card or wire transfer at a time. In 2018, 28 U.S. and Jamaican defendants were sentenced in a lottery scam. And in just the past two years citizens of Canada, Nigeria and the U.S. were convicted in romance scams.
In the meantime, we will continue to hang up on the phone calls that tell us we won a contest we never entered, unfriend the fashion model or hunky soldier, and never, ever, click on the link.
Lisa Black is a latent print examiner and CSI for a police department in Florida. In her August release, Every Kind of Wicked, forensic scientist Maggie Gardiner and homicide detective Jack Renner track down a nest of scammers. http://www.lisa-black.com