Woman 67, pleads guilty to collecting money in three kinds of fraud: romance, decal and car-buying scams. Feds say she sent bitcoin to co-conspirators in Nigeria.
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- Indictment unsealed in December alleged participation in a multi-level fraud
- Defendant, from Meadville, accused of scamming victims out of a total of $25,300
- Sentencing set for January
The FBI gets thousands of complaints about online scams every year.
Many involve Nigerians. Many include three kinds of fraud: romance scams, car-buying scams and scams to put advertising decals on cars.
A 67-year-old Meadville woman participated in all three scams, with help from Nigerians. Her prosecution has reached another stage in U.S. District Court in Erie.
The defendant, Diana Eckert, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to two felony counts related to a mail fraud scheme in which she received money from victims, converted the funds into bitcoin and remitted the funds “to accounts controlled by co-conspirators located in Nigeria,” according to the indictment.
The indictment alleged Eckert worked with unknown co-conspirators in Nigeria to victimize five people throughout the United States. The Nigerians induced the victims to send money to Eckert through the U.S. mail, and Eckert sent the bitcoin-converted funds to Nigeria, according to the indictment.
Eckert was involved “in a deeply complex scam to launder money overseas,” the prosecutor, Pittsburgh-based Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Bengel, said at the plea hearing at the federal courthouse in Erie.
Eckert pleaded guilty to defrauding the five victims of a total of $25,300 between May 2020 and July 2021. She pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and making a false statement to a postal inspector.
Eckert was charged with 13 felony counts in the indictment, which was returned in November and unsealed in December. As part of the plea deal, the U.S. Attorney’s Office dismissed the other 11 counts, though Eckert agreed to accept responsibility for the conduct alleged in those counts.
The dismissed charges were made up of five counts of mail fraud and six counts of wire fraud. They pertained to the individual monetary transactions that Eckert conducted as part of the fraud. Eckert is accused of wiring a total of $3,000, in six increments of $500, into a bank account she controlled in October 2020, according to the indictment.
U.S. District Judge Susan Paradise Baxter accepted Eckert’s plea and set sentencing for Jan. 10. Eckert remains free on an unsecured bond of $10,000.
Eckert faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in federal prison, though the sentence is expected to be less under the recommended federal sentencing guidelines. The guidelines account for a guilty plea and a defendant’s prior record, if any. Eckert must pay restitution as part of whatever sentence she gets, according to the plea deal.
Eckert and her lawyer, Aaron Sontz, an assistant federal public defender, said little at the plea hearing, other than to say Eckert understood her rights and was pleading guilty. Eckert will get a chance to address the judge at her sentencing hearing.
Three types of scams connected to Nigeria
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, known as IC3, logs thousands of complaints a year about the types of frauds that Eckert pleaded guilty to being a part of. The FBI has also focused on Nigerian nationals as it investigates the scams.
In Eckert’s case, she acted as kind of a middleman in the frauds, according to the indictment and the government’s statements in court. Her co-conspirators in Nigeria, according to the indictment, used the internet and social media to dupe the victims into sending her money as part of the three different scams.
● A “romance scam,” in which victims — often older people whose spouses have died — are tricked into sending money to phony romantic partners they meet online. One person mailed Eckert a personal check for $6,000 in November 2020, according to the indictment.
● A “decal scam,” in which victims send money to enter into fake deals to make money by having a company install advertising decals on cars. Eckert defrauded three victims with this scam. One victim sent Eckert $1,000 in cash in August 2020, another sent a $4,000 money order in September 2020 and the third victim sent $2,400 in cash in March, according to the indictment.
● A “car-buying scam,” in which victims send money to buy vehicles that don’t exist. One victim mailed Eckert an $11,900 check in July 2021, according to the indictment.
The indictment alleged the co-conspirators told the three decal fraud victims that Eckert “was an employee of a company that would install decals on the victims’ cars upon receipt of victim funds.”
The indictment alleged that the co-conspirators told the victim in the romance scam that Eckert “would assist in releasing victim funds held in a business account that the victim had sent as part of a romance scam, upon receipt of additional funds.”
Regarding the car-buying scam, the indictment alleged the co-conspirators told the victim that Eckert “was the owner of a vehicle and that she would sell and transport that vehicle to the victim upon receipt of victim funds.”
Defendant lied to a postal inspector
The indictment includes no information on how Eckert got involved in the fraud, and Bengel, the prosecutor, made no mention of those details in court.
But Bengel said that postal inspectors launched the probe against Eckert after noticing that Eckert was receiving “multiple packages” in which she was accepting money from possible fraud victims.
Inspectors repeatedly warned Eckert about the potentially fraudulent activity, and Eckert in June 2020 signed a “notice of voluntary discontinuance” regarding the activity, Bengel said in court. But she continued to receive the suspicious packages, Bengel said.
2018 case in Erie:Nigerian man sentenced in massive fraud
Also, according to the indictment, Eckert “communicated with co-conspirators regarding her receipt of packages containing victim funds, including the fact that at least one parcel was intercepted by the United States Postal Service and the victim’s funds were returned to the victim.”
Bengel said postal inspectors interviewed the victims as part of the investigation. They include the victim of the car-buying scam, identified in the indictment as only F.L.
Eckert pleaded guilty to falsely telling a postal inspector that Eckert knew F.L. and that she had no idea F.L. had sent money to her, according to the indictment. In fact, according to the indictment, Eckert had never met F.L., who had been instructed to send the money to Eckert.
The postal inspector spoke with Eckert about F.L. on July 8, 2021, according to the indictment. After the conversation, according to what Bengel said, Eckert texted F.L. and, posing as a postal inspector, told the victim to send her money anyway despite what the real postal inspector had told F.L.
Bengel said Eckert texted the victim that, no matter what she had heard, Diana Eckert was not guilty.