The victim of an elaborate three-year online romance scam has been sentenced for her part in handling money taken from other victims.
Sherroll Foster, 65, from Uxbridge in west London, pleaded guilty to money laundering at Isleworth crown court on Monday and admitted receiving thousands of pounds from innocent victims and transferring it to fraudsters in Ghana.
Foster first came into contact with the scammers at the end of 2012 after they created an online persona of "Mark Hamilton", a businessmen who claimed to have £4 million in gold deposits in Ghana.
Foster believed the scammers' story that once he had released his fortune from the bank he would spend his retirement with her. All he needed was some "additional funds" to make the transaction happen, he said.
The court heard that Foster paid the scammers her life savings – more than £65,000 – over the course of the next 12 months. She even took out loans and ran up credit card bills to send even more cash.
The court heard that around the same time two other British women in their sixties, who have not been named, were in contact with the scammers and were also told the story about £4 million in gold.
These women were cautious about sending money to Ghana, but instead were persuaded to send the cash to the UK bank account of Foster, who posed as the scammers' "mother".
In 2014, one victim sent £8,000 to Foster while another sent £19,000, and Foster transferred the money to Ghana the following day. Foster told the court she believed Hamilton's story that this was money from his friends who were helping him.
Eventually both these victims felt something was wrong and contacted the Action Fraud charity.
Foster was arrested on 10 February 2015 and told police during interview that she "wanted to believe" that Hamilton was genuine. When released on bail she continued her relationship with Hamilton and then transferred another payment of £3,500 to Ghana without question, the court heard.
Foster avoided jail because she had spent a year on bail and already lost her life savings. She must repay £3,500, however.
She was charged with two more counts of money laundering relating to three victims and one count of aiding and abetting fraud by false representation, but these charges will lie on file.
The case highlights the growing problem of romance scams targeting older women in the UK and USA, in which a scammer assumes a fake identity on a social network or dating website and begins an online relationship in the hope of convincing them to part with cash.
In an unconnected case in January, two London-based scammers originally from Nigeria were jailed for a total of five years for scamming a British woman out of £1.6 million.
As for the scammer, the police said in a statement: "Enquiries have been conducted to trace Mark Hamilton and he has not been traced."
Detective Constable Mark Cresswell of the Met police's Operation Falcon, which deals with online crime, said: "This may not be a unique tale, but it most certainly should be treated as a cautionary one. These fraudsters target vulnerable people and exploit them not only financially, but emotionally, making their victims believe that true happiness is almost within reach and just a bank transfer away.
"Sherroll Foster was looking forward to a comfortable retirement prior to becoming involved with this scam. She now faces financial ruin and extensive, long term debt.
"If someone online that you have never met in person asks you for money it is highly likely that it is a scam. If you have already sent money stop all contact immediately and report them to both the dating site and to Action Fraud. In most cases the money given under these circumstances cannot be recovered.
"Please don't give your bank details to people you don't know personally and never allow funds to be placed in your account for transferring on. This is money laundering and carries a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment."
The Met released an updated version of its public guide on how to spot and avoid online scams earlier this year.
Patrick Smith is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Patrick Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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