A Colorado mother and daughter were sentenced on Wednesday for their roles in a “Nigerian internet romance scam.” Karen and Tracy Vasseur were convicted of stealing more than $1 million from 374 victims who thought they were sending money to aid members of the United States military.
“Not only did this mother-daughter duo break the law, they broke hearts worldwide,” said Colorado Attorney General John Suthers in an official statement. “It is fitting that they received stiff sentences for their unconscionable crimes committed in the name of love and the United States military.”
According to the indictment, unknown conspirators in Nigeria would establish online relationships with victims via e-mail or social media by sending them fake military documents and personal photographs. After the relationship was established, the purported military member would request large sums of money, ostensibly for satellite phones that would allow them to speak to the victims or travel funds that would allow them to visit.
Victims would then be instructed to send the money, typically through Western Union or Money Gram, to a “military agent” in Colorado. Tracy or Karen Vasseur would pick up the money and wire it to their Nigerian associates minus their 10 percent cut. In order to hide the amount and frequency of their transactions, the paired opened twenty bank accounts at eleven different banks and received wire transmissions at sixty-eight different locations in nineteen different cities. They forwarded the money to one-hundred twelve Nigerians at ninety-four different Nigerian addresses.
Their fraudulent scheme began to unravel on March 4, 2011, when Western Union noticed what court papers call “an unusual occurrence”:
Western Union records show that, at 4:03 p.m., after she had sent out three wires, Karen Vasseur sent a wire to Nigeria in the amount of $1,8945. The records then show that two minutes later, at 4:05 p.m., she received a wire in the same amount from a different Western Union location in Thornton, Colorado, and the name of the sender was Karen Vasseur. Just two minutes later, Karen Vasseur sent out four more wires from the same location where the previous four wires were sent from.
While the Vasseurs were careful to keep the total sum of the transactions beneath the threshold that would trigger an automatic vetting by Western Union, the company became suspicious when the same person wired money to-and-from herself from two different locations at the same time.
Tracy Vasseur received a 15-year sentence for role in the scheme. Karen received a 12-year sentence.
[Image of Karen Vasseur courtesy of the Colorado Attorney General]