A New Jersey man has been sentenced to 14 years in prison for his role in an online dating scheme in which he and others, posing as U.S. military personnel serving overseas, stole $1.75 million from more than 40 victims over four years, federal prosecutors said.
Rubbin Sarpong, 38, of Millville, pleaded guilty in November to charges of wire fraud, money laundering and tax evasion. In addition to the prison term, a federal judge also sentenced Mr. Sarpong on Tuesday to three years of supervised release and ordered him to pay more than $3 million in restitution to 36 victims.
From January 2016 to September 2019, Mr. Sarpong and his co-conspirators, most of whom live in Ghana, set up profiles on dating websites, including Plenty of Fish, Ourtime.com and Match.com, often claiming to be U.S. military service members stationed in Syria, federal prosecutors said in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey.
After contacting victims, “wooing them with words of love” and initiating long-distance romantic relationships, Mr. Sarpong and his team asked for money, according to an F.B.I. investigator cited in the complaint. Many victims were told that the money would cover the cost of shipping gold bars that they had recovered or been awarded in Syria to the United States, and that they would be repaid once the gold bars were received. Victims mailed personal checks or cashier’s checks or used money-transfer services to send money to various bank accounts mostly controlled by Mr. Sarpong, prosecutors said. About $454,000 was sent to his co-conspirators in Ghana, the F.B.I. investigator said.
None of Mr. Sarpong’s collaborators, including a New Jersey-based American citizen, have been charged, a Justice Department spokesman said in a statement on Wednesday.
Despite having made $1.14 million in taxable income using the scheme from 2016 to 2018, Mr. Sarpong didn’t file tax returns or pay income taxes, the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of New Jersey said in a statement. He would have been obliged to pay $387,923, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said that Mr. Sarpong posted photos on Facebook and Instagram in which he posed with high-end cars, designer clothing, expensive jewelry and hefty stacks of cash, including $100 bills. In one caption, Mr. Sarpong wrote, “Everything I Touch First Thing in the Morning” should “Turn into Money,” according to the complaint. At least two others included the phrase “BloodyMoney.”
In a caption for another photo displaying jewelry and a computer, prosecutors said, Mr. Sarpong boasted that he had been “blessed” by a Dubai millionaire, adding, “Real recognize real.”
A photo from March 2017 shows Mr. Sarpong sitting in a car and holding a large stack of cash to his ear “like a cell phone,” prosecutors said. A year later he posted another photo, this time as he held a wad of cash near his face. The authorities said he withdrew $8,000 from a bank account around the time the photo was taken, after a victim had wired him more than $20,000.
Mr. Sarpong and his accomplices used email accounts and voice-over-internet-protocol phone numbers to communicate with victims, the authorities said. In addition to money, they also instructed victims to send expensive electronics to a New Jersey-based co-conspirator, and promised that a computer they requested would be delivered to a soldier in Syria.
They made lofty claims about their fortunes, and used forged documents to bolster their falsehoods, according to the complaint. One co-conspirator told a victim he was working with a diplomat named Earle Litzenberger, who is the current U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan. A person posing as Mr. Litzenberger sent a separate email to the same victim. Both emails were later tied to the same IP address in Ghana, according to the complaint.
Posing as a U.S. service member stationed in Syria, one participant in the scheme claimed in an email in May 2018 that his unit had recovered millions of dollars in gold bars and asked a victim for money to cover the cost of shipping his share, which he said was valued at over $12 million, to the U.S., prosecutors said.
That recipient wired about $93,710 to two domestic bank accounts over subsequent weeks, according to the complaint. Much of it went to an account registered to a fake used car dealership, called “Rubbin Sarpong Autosales.” On June 13, 2018, the woman told her daughter she was going to the airport to meet a diplomat named Alwin Rolf Lyss, along with the gold. The next day, prosecutors said, the woman committed suicide.