A mother and daughter in Colorado were indicted for their role in a "Nigerian internet romance scam" in which associates in Nigeria posed as members of the U.S. Armed Forces and stole over $1 million from 374 victims.
Tracy Vasseur, 40, and her mother, Karen Vasseur, 73, of Brighton, Colo., about 21 miles north of Denver, face a hearing on Tuesday in the Adams County District Court. The Colorado Attorney General, John Suthers, said the two were part of a scam since 2009 that "lured unsuspecting women to internet dating sites by posing as members of the U.S. military serving in Afghanistan. The Vasseurs' 374 victims over a three year period were based throughout the United States and from 40 other countries."
The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a government organization that refers cyber crime complaints to law enforcement agencies, says people 40 and older who are divorced, widowed, or disabled are most likely to fall prey to online dating scams. ABC News previously reported on other victims of these fraudulent Romeos, like Joan Romana from Lynbrook, N.Y. and Esther Ortiz-Rodeghero, a widow from Castle Rock, Colo.
The Vasseurs were indicted of 20 counts in violations of the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act, money laundering and theft in a 27-page document filed by Suthers' office. Tracy Vasseur faces up to 205 years in prison if convicted on all counts. Karen Vasseur faces up to 172 years in prison.
"After a phony relationship was established, victims were asked to send money and were led to believe that the soldiers would use the money to retrieve property, travel to the U.S., and pay other expenses," the attorney general's office said in a statement.
The mother-daughter duo worked with associates in Nigeria, wiring most of the stolen money to them and kept about a 10 percent cut "although they would often receive less," the indictment stated. The Vasseurs sent stolen money addressed to 112 different names in Nigeria, but most often to "Olamigoke Ayodeji." They also wired money to individuals in Ecuador, Great Britain, India, United Arab Emirates and the U.S.
Most of the victims were women, the indictment stated, "looking for love and companionship on the internet" on various dating sites and social networking sites like Facebook. During the "Nigerian internet romance scam," the attorney general's office said the Vasseurs never made contact with the victims, nor did they ever meet with their associates abroad. But the Vasseurs engaged in "regular, frequent and detailed discussions" about where the money and how much would be sent. Tracy Vasseur allegedly set up a "dating website" for one of her associates, the indictment stated.
"After an online relationship was established, the perpetrator would often send the victim fake military documents and personal photographs in order to convince the victim that they were truly a member of the U.S. military serving in a foreign country, usually Afghanistan," the indictment filing stated.
The Vasseurs and their attorney, James McKee Aber, did not return a request for comment.
"After a relationship was established, the purported military member would begin asking the victim to send money to an 'agent' in Colorado," primarily through electronic fund transfer services like Western Union or Money Gram, according to the indictment. "Among other reasons, victims were frequently told that the money they sent would pay for satellite phones, so that the victim and the perpetrator could talk directly to each other, or for travel expenses, so that the "soldier" could take authorized leave from duty to visit the victim in the U.S."
The money transferred was usually over $10,000 and as high as $59,000, according to the indictment.
According to the attorney general's office, the two recruited family members of friends to participate. Tracy Vasseur allegedly used her then 16-year-old daughter to fraudulently receive stolen money and then wire it to Nigeria as part of the scam over a year because Western Union had restricted her access, according to the indictment.
The indictment stated the grand jury is aware of "one or more individuals residing in Nigeria" who were involved in the scam, "but is unable to affirmatively identify them at this time."
The Vasseurs established 20 personal and business bank accounts at 11 local banks for the purpose of laundering the stolen money.
The indictment summarizes racketeering charges against the Vasseurs, naming over a dozen of the victims. Some of the victims became suspicious but unsuccessfully demanded their money back.
One email message, from an associate who called himself Jack Campbell, instructed a victim in North Carolina to send money to "a military 'agent' named Tracy L. Vasseur in Brighton, Colorado." Campbell, who said he was a member of the military, told the victim he needed money for travel expenses and "to get some of his personal items through customs."
Between Nov. 9 and Dec. 31, 2010, that victim sent a total of ten wire transfers for a total of $24,200.
The email message to the victim from Nov. 9, 2010 stated:
"Darling the Department need you to call the money gram location so that the agent in charge can be able to pick up the fees darling [sic] they need you to do that now. Jacky."
None of the victims, "including 29 at-risk adults," that investigators spoke to had their money returned, the indictment stated.