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Social media mogul charged with bilking $2 million from lonely Americans in ‘romance scheme’

Story by Michael James and Thao Nguyen, USA TODAY • May 16, 2023 11:32 PM

A woman who federal prosecutors say rose to fame as a social media influencer with 4.2 million Instagram followers around the globe has been extradited to the U.S. to face charges she bilked lonely Americans out of more than $2 million in an elaborate international romance scheme.

Romance Schemes are one of the most serious forms of online fraud

Phony romance plots have been identified by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission as one of the most serious forms of online fraud, costing more than $1.3 billion in some years, more than any other FTC fraud category. Famous opening solicitations in such cases often show photos of beautiful women and men, with captions such as, “We’ve never met, but let’s talk about marriage.”

“Romance scams – especially those that target older individuals – are of major concern,” FBI Assistant Director in Charge Michael J. Driscoll said Monday. “We alleged today that Mona Faiz Montrage participated in multiple romance scams – often targeting elderly victims – resulting in more than $2 million in fraudulent funds under her control.”

Romance Schemer one of the top-10 most followed

Montrage, 30, is a Ghanaian social media influencer whose “Hajia4Reall” profile is among the top-10 most followed in her native Ghana, according to a federal indictment made public this week. She was arrested on the U.S. charges and was extradited from the United Kingdom. Posts on the Instagram account identified by federal prosecutors as being hers show a young woman wearing attractive clothes and posing in front of high-priced automobiles.

She is charged in the U.S. indictment 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 of which carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Montrage, who hails from the capital city of Accra in Ghana, is also charged with one count of receipt of stolen money, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, and one count of conspiracy to receive stolen money, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

“From at least in or about 2013 through in or about 2019, Montrage was a member of a criminal enterprise (the “Enterprise”) based in West Africa that committed a series of frauds against individuals and businesses in the United States, including romance scams,” prosecutors said in a statement Monday.

Victims were older, vulnerable, looking for love

“Many of the Enterprise’s romance scam victims were vulnerable, older men and women who lived alone. The Enterprise frequently conducted the romance scams by sending the victims emails, text messages, and social media messages that deceived the victims into believing that they were in romantic relationships” with a fake identity, court papers said.

Once members of the Enterprise had successfully convinced victims that they were in a romantic relationship and had gained their trust, they convinced the victims, under false pretenses, to transfer money to bank accounts controlled by members of the Enterprise, prosecutors said.

Romance schemes weren’t the only ruses used by the scheme, prosecutors said.

Among the false pretenses used to induce victims to send money to Montrage were payments to transport gold to the United States from overseas; payments to resolve a fake FBI unemployment investigation; and payments to assist a fake United States army officer in receiving funds from Afghanistan, according to the federal indictment.

“As alleged, Mona Faiz Montrage was a member of a criminal conspiracy that specifically targeted older Americans through romance scams,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement. “These scams can be both financially and emotionally devastating for vulnerable victims.”

One victim received a marriage certificate

Prosecutors say Montrage went to great lengths to convince one of the victims that the two were married.

Montrage sent the victim a tribal marriage certificate purporting to show that she and the victim had been married in Ghana, according to the indictment. “The victim sent Montrage approximately 82 wire transfers totaling approximately $89,000 to purportedly help with costs associated with Montrage’s father’s farm in Ghana,” prosecutors said in a statement.

Montrage pleaded not guilty during a court appearance Monday and was set to be released on home detention to her aunt’s New Jersey residence in the coming days on $500,000 bond, with GPS tracking via an ankle monitor, her lawyer and the prosecutor’s office told the New York Post.

“At this time all we know is that there are six alleged victims and only two dealt with a woman and only one of them claims that he dealt with Ms. Montrage,” her attorney, Adam Cortez, told The Post.

Social media influencers present unique problems in cases

Maysan Alobaid, a former research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, said money laundering “has become a greater threat in the age of influencer culture.” According to Alobaid, there is looser inspection of influencers, which allows for easy transactions and investigations trickier for authorities.

Montrage, who currently has 4.2 million followers on her Instagram profile, has remained active on her social media accounts since her arrest in the United Kingdom on Nov. 10, 2022.

On her TikTok and Instagram, she has posted several times a month, participating in social media trends and sharing her lavish lifestyle.

In one video earlier this month, Montrage is seen at a Dior trunk show trying on merchandise from the luxury store with friends. Other posts also show Montrage promoting products and her collaborating with other influencers.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Social media mogul charged with bilking $2 million from lonely Americans in ‘romance scheme’

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