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20 August 2014, 18:22
A victim of a dating website scam has spoken of how she was taken in by the "charming'' fraudster who was going to be her "prince'' and she was going to "spend the rest of her life with him''.
A number of women responded to the false profile of an "attractive middle-aged man'' on the match.com website, Winchester Crown Court has heard.
Once the relationship developed, the conspirators would start requesting money and the court has heard they gained a total of £220,000 - including £174,000 from one woman.
Simon Edwards, prosecuting, told the jury that they created a tale that the fake man, normally called James Richards, was due to receive a £1.5 million inheritance from his father but this was tied up by bureaucracy in India.
He said that at first the women would be asked for a £700 legal fee by a fake solicitor, Rod Thompson, and then the sums requested to help release the money increased from £10,000 to an "astonishing'' £100,000.
Brooke Boston, 28, of Common Lane, Titchfield, Hampshire, and Eberechi Ekpo, 26, of Adair Road, Southsea, both deny charges of conspiracy to defraud and money laundering.
Monty Emu, 28, of Adair Road, Southsea, and Adewunmi Nusi, 27, of Bomford Close, Hermitage, Berkshire, both deny money laundering.
The jury was told that Emmanuel Oko, 29, of Waverley Grove, Southsea, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud and money laundering and Chukwuka Ugwu, 28, of Somers Road, Southsea, has pleaded guilty to money laundering.
In a statement read to court, Deborah Cole said that she was first contacted by Richards on May 6 last year and she described him as "very charming'' and "attentive''.
After a couple of weeks he began to tell her that his parents had died and he had to travel to Manchester to sort out a house that he had inherited from his father and was being used by squatters.
She said that he then said he found out about the inheritance in India and flew to New Delhi to collect the money.
Ms Cole said that she then gave him £700 to pay for an affidavit required by the Indian authorities to release the inheritance, but became suspicious when Richards and his "solicitor'' Thompson said he needed £10,000 to pay the 1% inheritance tax but which she did not pay.
She explained that because she worked in banking she knew that this figure was incorrect and she suspected that Thompson was actually trying to con Richards.
Describing Richards as convincing, she said: "It all seemed so natural and rolled off his tongue, it didn't sound made up, it almost seemed rehearsed.
"James was very clever, he never directly asked for the money but he put you in the position where you wanted to help, you felt drawn in.''
When she found out it was a fraud, she said: "I was absolutely distraught, I cried my eyes out, I felt weak.
"I was shocked, I was crying, I felt I had been completely taken advantage of by a man who portrayed he was madly in love with me but it was all about the money.
"I wanted to find a relationship and find someone to spend the rest of my life with, he was going to be that man, he was my prince.''
She added: "You think you are never going to be conned but he completely convinced me.''
Another victim, Wendy Berry, said in her statement read to the court that she was contacted by Richards at the same time as she was being tested for, and subsequently diagnosed with, cancer.
She said that she became suspicious when she was told that Richards had inherited two houses and that she could live in one.
She told Richards that she could not afford to pay the £700 for the affidavit and when she tried to trace Thompson at his firm of solicitors she was told he did not work there and she was then contacted by the police.
Ms Berry said: "This has caused me more distress at a difficult time of my life.''
Sylvia Tai Sen Choy told the court that she was tricked into paying a total of £11,300 to Richards and Thompson.
She became suspicious when she was sent the same email twice and another one with someone else's name in it.
She said that she sent him a reply saying: "Hey Mr Gorgeous, thank you for your message but you have sent it to me before, do you think I am someone else?''
When she discovered it was a scam she emailed Richards saying: "Your story was incredibly believable, I wonder how many other hearts you have broken and vulnerable women's money you have stolen?''
Lorna Lacey said in her statement read to the court that she found the tale told by Richards believable as it was backed up by photos of him sitting on the aeroplane flying to India and at the hotel and swimming pool there.
She said: "I believed him completely, this seems odd but at the time he was very believable in the way he came over, at the time I had no reason to think otherwise.''
She said that she gave him £700 for the affidavit and another £3,500 towards the tax to be paid in India but she started to become suspicious when Richards said he had been injured in an accident in India and needed money to pay the hospital fees.
After paying £500 towards his flight home, she said that he continued to ask her for money but she refused.
She said: "James asked me again for the money and each time I said no. Eventually the call ended and I never heard from him again.''
The trial was adjourned until tomorrow.