A woman broke down in court on Wednesday as she described how a group of people allegedly took advantage of her loneliness and isolation during lockdown by tricking her into a fake relationship by people posing as a US soldier.

Six people deny defrauding the 72-year-old out of almost €50,000 by pretending to be a US soldier stationed in Afghanistan.

“I still cannot believe I let this happen. This became a nightmare that has kept me awake ever since,” the woman told Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech as she burst into tears. 

“I had just lost my husband and I was feeling lonely. There was a lockdown and I could not even go out shopping. I was longing for some company,” the woman, who cannot be named by court order, said. 

She was testifying in the compilation of evidence against five men and a woman who allegedly tricked her into fostering an online relationship with a fictitious soldier who told her he was moving to Malta following his deployment.

The accused are: Nigerian nationals Tony Ogbonna Anuforo, 34, Marvis Iyeke, 35, Collins Eguavoen, 29, Sunday Eboh, 39, Tabi Ovi, 36, and 58-year-old Maltese national Alexandra Pace. They are pleading not guilty to the charges. 

A friendship request

The emotional woman, who at one point asked for water during her testimony, said the matter began last June when she received a friendship request on Facebook from a man by the name of Smith Jones. She did not usually accept friend requests from males, especially when they were not acquaintances, but she did this time. 

“There was a photo of a nice-looking man dressed as an American soldier. I thought to myself he lives in Kabul so he cannot harm me so I accepted it,” she said, and that was when her “nightmare” started. 

He first spoke to her on Messenger and immediately asked for her mobile number so they could speak on WhatsApp because it was easier for him. “He started messaging and I liked the company because I was lonely. He was always very nice to me. He was saying he loved me and would like to be with me. At first, I wasn’t sure but I told him I was lonely because my husband died,” she said in between sobs. 

About a month or two later, he asked for her address because he said he wanted to send a small gift. She obliged and a few days later he told her he had sent something via courier. 

'I transferred the money'

Some days later, she received messages on her mobile from a different person, by the name of Chris Donald who said he was the courier. He sent her a picture of a package, which later turned out to fictitious. 

“He told me customs wanted me to pay €3,500 for them to release the item. He sent me an account number so I went to the bank and transferred the money. I couldn’t sleep at night and I couldn’t eat. It was very hard for me. He asked me for proof of payment so I sent the receipt,” she said. 

A day later he messaged back claiming that the people at customs said that she was responsible for the package because it was in her name and that the package contained $45,000. The messaging continued until he asked for another €5,200 to release the package and later for another €10,000 and then €15,000 and then another time for €14,000 which she was told to split into two payments.

The woman explained that she was being given different bank accounts where to transfer the money and that the bank clerk had asked her whether she was sure of the transfer and whether she knew the person behind the account.  

'It was a scam'

“I was not keeping a record of how much I sent. He then asked for another €5,000 but I did not have any money left in the account so I asked my sister to lend them to me but she refused when I told her the story. She said it was a scam and forced me to tell my daughter who got very angry with me,” she said as she wiped away tears.

“I didn’t tell my daughter about all this and I regret it because I usually tell her everything. I came forward because I do not want the same thing to happen to other people. I'm sorry for those women who do not have a loving family like I do,” she said.

She confirmed that the total amount she had paid was €58,700 but a €10,000 transaction had been returned to her, with the account holder informing the bank it was a mistake. 

Under cross-examination, the woman confirmed she had not physically met any of the accused. She said that when she looked back at the chats, she deduced that it must have been the same person as there were similar spelling mistakes and similar diction. 

The case continues on March 11.  

Karl Muscat, Sean Xerri de Caro and Abigail Caruana Vella from the office of the attorney general prosecuted. Police inspector Sarah Zerafa from the Paola district and police inspector Claire Borg from the financial crimes department assisted. 
Lawyers Charmaine Cherrett, Robert Piscopo, Frank Cassar, Charles Mercieca, Amadeus Cachia and Franco Debono appeared for the accused.

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