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Couple charged in $6M online-dating scam; 1 victim embezzled to pay them, prosecutor says

"The conspirators made initial contact with victims through online dating and social media websites" and pretended "to strike up a romantic relationship with them," the prosecutor said.

A married couple in New Jersey faces charges in an alleged online-dating scam that federal prosecutors say swindled at least 33 people out of more than $6 million.

Martins Friday Inalegwu, 31, and Steincy Mathieu, 24, are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of New Jersey said in a press release.

The husband and wife, who have two young children and live in Maple Shade, about 12 miles east of Philadelphia, allegedly ran the scheme from October 2016 to May 2020. It involved several conspirators who live in Nigeria and Turkey and defrauded victims from around the U.S., the press release states.

"The conspirators made initial contact with victims through online dating and social media websites, corresponded with them via email and phone, pretended to strike up a romantic relationship with them," the U.S. attorney's office said.

"They requested the victims send money to them, or their associates, for fictitious emergency needs," including telling the victims that they had they needed the funds for medical expenses, traveling, taxes or business purposes.

"The individuals whom the victims believed they were speaking to did not exist, and instead they were speaking to the conspirators," the release states.

Prosecutors said the victims sent money to bank accounts for Inalegwu and Mathieu and mailed checks to them. The scam allegedly raked in more than $6 million, $3.1 million of it directly to Inalegwu and Mathieu.

Authorities said the couple used the money for personal expenses and transferred some of it to various bank accounts.

One victim emptied her savings, liquidated her retirement account, borrowed money from family and friends, maxed out her credit cards and took out a personal loan to send money to the scammers, according to a criminal complaint.

Authorities said the victim, a finance director, then began embezzling money from her employer. In all, she funneled $4 million from her employer, the complaint states. She was later charged and pleaded guilty to embezzlement.

Inalegwu and Mathieu are also accused of running an apartment rental scam. The Attorney's Office said the couple would advertise properties online that were not owned or controlled by them. At least three victims sent them money for the apartments.

Inalegwu was arrested Tuesday and authorities are still searching for Mathieu. It's not clear if either of the suspects have obtained attorneys.