LOS ANGELES (CN) – A Nigerian man who swindled three Californians out of more than $400,000 by demanding “tax” on bogus foreign lottery winnings was sentenced Tuesday to 14 years in federal prison. The people who typically fall for such scams “are older, sometimes people who have dementia and are lonely and need someone to talk to,” an assistant U.S. attorney said.
One of Emmanuel I. Onwuzulike’s victims, a San Fernando Valley woman, lost her home after she paid more than $368,000 for a phony “tax” on what she thought were millions of dollars in foreign lottery winnings, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The 55-year-old Onwuzulike, who used the alias “Tony Moore,” pleaded guilty in July to one count of mail fraud.
U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer sentenced him to 14 years in prison and ordered him to pay back his victims.
The sentence is a fairly stiff one and is part of a government crackdown on foreign scammers who prey on Americans, assistant U.S. attorney Ellyn M. Lindsay said in an interview.
“Hopefully the higher sentences that judges are now giving out for these kinds of frauds will have some kind of deterrent effect,” she said. “We have an expertise here in prosecuting these defendants who commit these kind of frauds internationally, targeting victims all over the world.”
Though not all of Onwuzulike’s victims were elderly, seniors are most likely to fall for lottery and other scams, Lindsay said.
“The people who end up falling for it are older, sometimes people who have dementia and are lonely and need someone to talk to,” she said.
Onwuzulike was part of a London-based group that took more than $2 million from 52 people, mostly elderly victims, between 2004 and 2006, according to prosecutors. Under the guise of fake companies such as “Euromillones Loteria International” and the “EU Anti-Terrorism Commission,” the scammers lured their victims with tales of lottery and sweepstakes winnings. The victims were told to contact telemarketers in England and Spain, who informed them that they would have to pay a tax or fee to receive the prize. The victims sent the money, but the prizes never came, prosecutors said.
One Orange County woman fell victim to the scam in 2006 when she received a letter informing her that she’d won $815,950 from the “Euromillones Spanish Sweepstakes Lottery.” She agreed to pay a 2 percent tax on the “winnings” and wired $16,319 to a bank account controlled by Onwuzulike, according to prosecutors. She received nothing in return.
“This case involves a serious fraud through which defendant and others stole money from victims who could hardly afford the loss,” prosecutors wrote in sentencing papers. “This crime had devastating consequences for its victims, emotional as well as financial.”