The online romance scam is a tried-and-true scheme in which criminals are rarely caught.
But the ringleader of an international criminal enterprise was held accountable in an Illinois courtroom in one of just a handful of romance scam prosecutions around the country.
Olayinka Ilumsa Sunmola, 33, of Nigeria was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison for an international criminal enterprise he ran from 2007 to 2014. Sunmola and his associates targeted hundreds of women across the United States, developing intense online relationships and promising them true love. Instead, Sunmola bilked them for millions of dollars.
“These crimes represent the most devastating crime one could ever imagine, without laying hands or eyes on another human being,” said U.S. District Judge David Herndon at the Feb. 2 sentencing.
Sunmola and his underlings created fake profiles on popular online dating and social media sites to lure vulnerable, unsuspecting women. The men often stole photos of U.S. soldiers – some who had been killed in combat – to tug at their heartstrings before feigning emergency and asking to send money and electronics for their official missions.
“An American soldier stationed overseas, typically his profiles would be a father with a young daughter. His wife had died in some tragic accident,” said Nathan Stump, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois.
Danielle, or Jane Doe 6 as she was called at trial, was one of Sunmola’s victims. We’ve changed her name at her request for privacy.
“It was like a dream come true,” Danielle said.
Her story begins in 2008. Danielle was newly divorced and lonely. Her daughter urged her to create an online account to meet new people. Danielle met someone almost instantly.
“His eyes were breathtaking,” Danielle recalled.
Danielle said her mystery man was also from her community in Southern Illinois but as a member of the U.S. Army, he was stationed overseas in South Africa.
Over the next few months, the two developed a strong connection, often talking on the phone up to 30 times a day. He sent her cards, roses and chocolates. They bonded over shared tragedy. Her prince charming told her that he was recently widowed with a young daughter.
Danielle was a victim of an armed robbery and execution-style shooting, which left her partially blind and unable to drive, among other life-altering effects.
“He made me feel really good, as if it didn’t matter (what happened to me),” said Danielle.
Danielle said she fell in love quickly. He promised her he would return home soon so the two could get married.
But after a few months into their relationship, Danielle said she noticed a change. Her love suddenly starting facing emergency after emergency overseas.
“He wasn’t getting money from the government. He was going to be getting kicked out of the hotel he was staying in. He was talking about not having food,” Danielle said.
She ended up wiring him money – in all more than $12,000, even taking cash advances on her credit card. When she had no more money to send him, Danielle said he snapped.
“He went from being a very nice guy to a very evil man.”
Danielle said he had taken private photos of her through a webcam without her knowledge. He threatened to send the images to her friends and family. Danielle said this man seemed to have done his homework. He knew side streets in her neighborhood, even the name of the president at her local bank.
“He told me by the time he got through with me, I’d want to kill myself,” Danielle said.
She admits she contemplated suicide. Danielle is not alone.
Other victims told federal investigators that they, too, thought of ending their lives due to emotional distress caused by their fake online relationships.
According to prosecutors, an Atlanta woman, a healthcare worker, told them she was so distraught that she made a mistake in administering medicine to a child undergoing surgery. The child was okay, but she lost her job.
Many women bought wedding dresses and quit jobs in preparation for marriages promised by the scammers. Once they sent money and realized it was all a ruse, several women ended up filing for bankruptcies.
“It wasn’t just a barbaric crime,” said Stump. “The defendant seemed to relish torturing his victims.”
Sunmola and his associates lived a lavish lifestyle in their home country at their victims’ expense. The government estimates they swindled at least $1.7 million, a conservative estimate since many victims chose not to come forward.
“It’s a crime that comes with some embarrassment and some shame for the victims,” Stump said. “There are hundreds of other victims out there.”
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service began its investigation into Sunmola in 2012 when an Illinois woman complained she had been conned by a man online. From there, the scheme unraveled. Several federal and international agencies, including Homeland Security, Secret Service, South African Police Service, London Metropolitan Police, were involved.
“Not only did he use romance scam victims to send their own money, he used them as what we call mules,” said U.S. Postal Inspector Adam Latham. “He had thousands of illegally obtained credit cards on computers we seized…and he would use those numbers to order merchandise.”
Sunmola was indicted in November 2013 on charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy and interstate extortion. He was arrested at London’s airport in August 2014. Sunmola plead guilty to all eight counts in March 2016 after two days of trial.
Stump said prosecutors wanted to make an example of Sunmola, referred to as “boss,” in his community in Nigeria to deter similar crimes. The FBI estimates it saw a dollar loss of $203 million from romance scam frauds in 2015. That same year, Illinois victims lost more than $4.6 million.
At his sentencing, Sunmola apologized to his victims and asked for forgiveness. His defense attorney said Sunmola will be appealing his 27-year sentence.
“(The sentence is) going to send a very strong message. Not only to the offenders wherever they are that we mean business and you can’t do this and if you do, there are serious consequences. But also to the victims that they understand that we take this seriously,” said Stump.