Huntington, West Virginia has seen its share of tragedies. Nestled near the Kentucky border, Huntington is the home of Marshall University, which in the 1970s suffered one of the saddest disasters in the history of US sports. A charter flight carrying most of the school’s football team crashed on the way back from a game, killing everyone on board. A great movie, “We Are Marshall” starring Matthew McConaughey, tells that story. More recently, Huntington has been described as the epicenter of America’s opioid addiction crisis. Still, it’s a pretty small community of 50,000 that you might never expect to be the epicenter of a massive international internet crime ring. That’s the subject of a recent Perfect Scam episode. You can listen by clicking here or clicking the play button below.
In reality, it was the perfect place to operate a twisted, long-running romance scam operation. International students were recruited to serve various roles in the crime, in part because their nationality made transactions back home to Nigeria and Ghana appear less suspicious.
But not all the criminals were exchange students. A key figure in the crime was Patricia Dudding, a 70-year-old woman who was initially approached as a potential victim of a romance scam. But she eventually joined forces with the crime gang, serving as a willing money mule. Dudding set up accounts at about 10 banks, lying about their purpose.
“More than two dozen individuals from the United States and abroad made deposits into those accounts. Dudding and unnamed co-conspirators would then transfer these funds to bank accounts in Nigeria,” local news accounts say. Prosecutors say Dudding kept $100,000 of the millions of dollars flowing in and out of these accounts.
Eventually, Dudding pled guilty to aiding and abetting an unlawful monetary transaction. She was sentenced recently to three months in prison, three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution.
The victims suffered financial and emotional trauma.
“I think one of them just, he had recently lost his wife, because these scams really prey on very vulnerable people and not only are they often older, but you know they’re going through something in life, and like that’s why sometimes they’re so lonely that they get attached to these people,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Katie Robison told me. He testified during one of the trials. “We were just asking questions, and then you could just start seeing him start to tear up and it, you know, it was just really sad watching that in trial.”
The band of criminals was persuasive when they reached out to victims.
“They develop this whole fake persona,” Robison told me. “One person pretended he was a man named Martin Baum. He falls in love with multiple women, He says that he’s working overseas. I think he may have been some engineer that was working on a boat. Often people will say they’re an oil rig worker. They’ll come up with some reason why they don’t have access to US bank accounts that can sound…somewhat plausible before they start asking the victims to send them money. And they’ll start asking for small amounts of money at first, usually something that … maybe if you knew someone, you don’t mind sending that much at first, and then over time, as they keep talking to these victims, the victims think that they’re in a loving relationship with these fake identities. They’ll start asking for more and more money, and that’s when it starts you know really accumulating.”
The criminals stole at least $3.2 million from dozens of victims, prosecutors said. United States Attorney Michael B. Stuart said it was the largest elder fraud scheme in West Virginia history.
Another sad element of this story is the way some of the criminals were roped into the gang. Some were given little choice, Robison said. The exchange students and their families faced intimidation and threats if they didn’t participate. During post-indictment interviews, their stories came out.
“One of them, in particular, got very upset because … the other thing that we just don’t think about is there’s a lot of pressure to join these schemes,” she told me. “Because if you’ve left home … you’re in the US, but a lot of your family members are back in Nigeria or Ghana, and in Nigeria in particular, there’s a real gang problem. And a lot of the gangs are also involved in these fraud schemes, and so they can threaten people to … use their bank accounts … but if you realize what’s going on and you want to leave at some point, it’s hard to leave these schemes because your relatives at home could possibly be in danger.”