MARBLEHEAD — The man responding to her online dating profile last November called himself “James Deere,” and he spoke with a French accent.
He said he was a fund manager at a well-known investment firm, and that he was living on the North Shore.
Very quickly, the Marblehead woman and “Deere” were exchanging text messages and emails, and speaking on the phone.
Within just a few weeks, he had a favor to ask.
At that moment, the woman, who is in her mid-60s, became victim of what is most often called a romance scam.
She’s not alone.
In August, the FBI issued a public service announcement warning of a sharp increase in this type of fraud.
Citing figures from their Internet Crime Complaint Center, more than 18,000 people reported falling victim to romance scams in 2018, with more than $362 million in losses. In 2017, more than 15,000 people reported $211 million in losses.
On Tuesday, a man believed to be the mastermind of the scam that ensnared the Marblehead woman — and, investigators believe, others around the country — tried to convince a Salem Superior Court judge to remove the GPS ankle bracelet that has been tracking his whereabouts since last spring while he awaits trial on charges of felony larceny and money laundering.
The man, Hassan Ali Abbas, 52, later withdrew his request after being told that his bail, already set at $250,000, and posted, would likely increase significantly as a result, given the fact that he is a Lebanese citizen, a resident of Belgium and whose only ties in the United States are his Illinois law license and a series of shell corporations set up around the country.
A prosecutor also said on Tuesday that Abbas learned Monday that federal agents were about to execute search warrants on computers and phones they seized from Abbas when he was arrested at the Newark airport last March.
Abbas’s attorney, Michael DeStefano, said during the same hearing that his client denies the charges and that prosecutors have no evidence that he’s the man who was corresponding with the Marblehead woman. He’s filed a motion to dismiss the case, set to be heard in December.
Assistant District Attorney Lindsay Nasson described a complex financial scheme that involved the use of phony corporations, “spoofed” email addresses and websites, and fake names to convince the woman that “Deere” had just come into an $11.7 million commission while working as a fund manager for Perpetual Investments, an Australian financial services company.
The company exists, but the scammers set up a phony web domain that was similar to the real Perpetual Investments site.
“Deere” told the woman that he was planning to leave the firm and start his own in Revere, and asked her to help him by letting him put the commission into an account that would be under her name.
The woman agreed.
Then, she began receiving emails from people purporting to be employees of various financial institutions. One email claimed to be from the Birmingham Credit Union, asking for $75,000 to open the account where the commission would be deposited. “Deere” told her that all of his money was tied up, and asked her to wire the funds to an account in Texas, which would then send it to England.
Then, she got an email “confirming” the $11.7 million deposit. But that was followed closely by another one that requested $160,300 for “tax clearance” on the funds. This time, she was instructed to wire the money to a bank in California, an account in the name of a company called “Sparta Gijon Inc.,” which investigators would later confirm was incorporated by Abbas. She sent $100,000 to that account in early December.
A week later, she received another email purporting to be from the credit union, saying that part of the commission funds were being transferred to a bank in Turkey due to “certain diplomatic laws,” followed by an email from someone claiming to represent the Turkish bank, requesting $75,000 for a “fund release order.”
This time, she was instructed to wire the funds to an account in Florida.
In early January, she received an email “confirming” that the commission funds deposit had gone through. Then, the next day, she was asked to obtain a statement from her bank, because the transfer hadn’t gone through.
By that point, she’d transferred $214,000 of her own money, from her bank and investment accounts.
That’s when she confided in a friend, who immediately suspected that she’d fallen prey to a scam.
She went to police, and eventually met with retired Marblehead police chief Jim Carney, who has been working as an investigator with the district attorney’s office.
Carney, who was also once a police detective, quickly went to work, identifying two people connected to the bank accounts where the woman wired money.
But he also learned that Abbas, a licensed attorney in Illinois, had come under scrutiny in other places for playing a suspected role in another type of scheme involving compromised email accounts in 2017 and 2018.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security had been looking at Abbas in connection with suspicious transactions in other states, and the Florida bank where the Marblehead woman had sent some of her money had shut down the account over suspected fraud based on a number of transfers of funds to the account from women in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
Carney reached out to one of those women, who lives in Illinois, and who had posted a profile on another dating website. She told Carney that she’d been contacted by a man with a European accent, who called himself “Smirth Davis,” last September. He also wanted her to help him with an $11 million transfer of funds, promising her $1 million for her trouble.
“In my conversation with (the Illinois woman), it was apparent that she did not realize she had been victimized,” Carney wrote in his report. He urged her to file a report with the police in her community.
The woman had sent a $59,400 cashier’s check to the same Florida account where the Marblehead woman had been instructed to send funds.
The check was made out to and signed for by a “John Richards,” who had the same address as a man named Rapheal O. Adebowale, Carney learned.
Adebowale, 30, of Lake Worth, Florida, who is also charged with felony larceny and money laundering in the case, has pleaded not guilty in the case and is free on $50,000 bail.
He has also been the subject of investigations by authorities in Florida and Alabama, Carney learned.
The funds in the three bank accounts had been transferred to other banks and businesses overseas or withdrawn from ATMs in other countries including China and Lebanon.
Both men were indicted in June by an Essex County grand jury.
Abbas’s bail was posted by his son, his lawyer said. Prosecutors had asked for a hearing to determine the source of those funds, but their request was denied by a Lynn District Court judge back in May.
DeStefano said he believes his client is unfairly burdened by the GPS bracelet requirement, “It’s ostracizing to walk around with that,” he said, pointing to the boxy device strapped around Abbas’s ankle. He also objected to a court order barring him from entering the town of Marblehead, saying that prosecutors have no proof that it was Abbas who was the person communicating with the woman there.
Nasson argued on Tuesday that she’s concerned that if Abbas is let off of the GPS bracelet, he will disappear. She urged Karp to either leave the bracelet in place, or hold Abbas in custody without bail.
Karp had similar concerns — but then pointed out that under court rules, he cannot impose pre-trial GPS as a condition of bail unless the defendant agrees to it.
“This court sees large amounts of bail being posted ... and poof, he’s gone,” said the judge, who said many defendants appear to view bail as “a cost of doing business,” especially in cases where a defendant has ties outside of the court’s jurisdiction.
“I do, however, have the authority to increase bail,” Karp said. He gave the defense lawyer time to discuss the request again with Abbas.
After a break, Abbas withdrew his request to be let off the bracelet.
He’s due back in court on Dec. 9.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.