An African woman who was residing in the United Kingdom has been extradited to the United States after being charged as the alleged mastermind behind a massive romance scam that has tricked many Americans in search of love out of their money.
The Department of Justice contends the scheme zeroed in on older men and women.
Federal prosecutors allege that Mona Faiz Montrage, 30, stole over $2 million by working with a group of West African criminals in an identity fraud circle.
She has been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, one count of wire fraud, one count of money laundering conspiracy, and one count of money laundering. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
Montrage is also charged with one count of being in receipt of stolen money, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, and one count of conspiracy to receive stolen money, which could land her five years in prison.
Related: Brooklyn Bling Bishop Lamor Whitehead Used Fake Deed to Steal a Church Building, Evicting Worshippers, New Lawsuit Alleges; He Claims It’s ‘Frivolous’
Federal prosecutors say the posse would collectively trick elderly people who were looking for love in all the wrong social media places by sending them emails, texts, and direct messages that proclaimed their love.
The prominent Ghanaian influencer, who has over 3.4 million followers on Instagram and is one of Ghana’s top 10 profiles in followers, was arrested in the U.K. on Nov. 10, 2022, and extradited on May 12. After spending the weekend in U.S. custody, Montrage stood before U.S. District Judge Paul A. Crotty on Monday, May 15.
“As alleged, Mona Faiz Montrage was a member of a criminal conspiracy that specifically targeted older Americans through romance scams,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a DOJ statement released on May 15. “These scams can be both financially and emotionally devastating for vulnerable victims.”
According to FBI New York Field Office Assistant Director in Charge Michael J. Driscoll, Montrage engaged a few people, including older would-be lovers, in fake relationships that resulted in people sending her over $2 million.
“Romance scams – especially those that target older individuals – are of major concern. The FBI will be tireless in our efforts to hold fraudsters accountable in the criminal justice system,” Driscoll said in the statement.
The influencer, according to allegations, had bank accounts set up in the Bronx, New York, and other places around the world. One account was opened under the name of 4Reall Designs, a supposed clothing company, prosecutors say.
One of the rationales Montrage allegedly used to persuade her victims to give her money was so she could transport gold to the United States from overseas. Authorities say she also asked some of her victims to make payments to resolve a fake FBI unemployment investigation. Another way Montrage scammed her victims was by asking them to help a fake United States Army officer receive funds from Afghanistan, the DOJ reported.
With one victim she is alleged to have used her real name and spoke on the phone several times with him. She convinced the person they were married, sending the victim a tribal marriage certificate that said legally they were married in Ghana.
In turn, the victim sent his “wife” approximately 82 wire transfers totaling about $89,000. This money was to help Montrage’s father’s farm in Ghana.
Publicly filed documents show for six years, between 2013 and 2019, she worked with a group of other West African scam artists in various schemes. They not only engaged in fake digital relationships but there were also some businesses duped.
The collective would catfish their victims, convincing them “under false pretenses, to transfer money to bank accounts.” The wires would then go to bank accounts controlled by members of the group.
Montrage’s lawyer, Adam Cortez, told the New York Post that out of all the six alleged victims, only two said they dealt with a woman. Only one of the victims, the attorney notes, “claims that he dealt with Ms. Montrage.”
Cyber fraud has been a huge issue tackled by the Justice Department.
U.S. Attorney Christopher R. Kavanaugh released a video public service announcement at the beginning of May to help warn people of the different types of scams.
While talking about how sophisticated and aggressive the scammers have become, he said, “Fraudsters are using high-pressure tactics and promises of low or no-risk investments in an attempt to steal the hard-earned money of our citizens, especially our seniors.”
The release added tips like “Never send money to anyone you do not know and research who you are investing your hard-earned money with” and “If you feel rushed, or if you are told not to discuss the investment opportunity with others, you are being scammed.”
In 2022, the FTC released a report that said romance scams had hit a record high. Between 2017 and 2021, Americans reported losing $1.3 billion to romance scams, more than any other FTC fraud category.
The study shows more than a third of the nation’s romance victims who lost money with their digital beaus said their relationships started on Facebook and Instagram.
While young people between the ages of 18 and 29 have been hit the most in that five-year span, people 70 and above are hit harder in the wallet.
Individuals 70 and older have the highest individual median losses at $9,000. The younger age group, 18 to 29, has a median loss of $750.
During her hearing on Monday, Montrage pleaded not guilty, the Post reported. According to her lawyer and the prosecutor, she will be released this week on home detention to her aunt’s New Jersey residence on a $500,000 bond. She will also have to wear a GPS-tracking ankle monitor.