Conman jailed for lottery scam

Updated: 

PA

A fraudster nicknamed "Fizzy" because of his love of champagne has been jailed for eight years for conning vulnerable pensioners out of their life savings with a bogus lottery scam to fund his millionaire's lifestyle.

For seven years, Frank Onyeachonam ran the UK operation of a global scam which was orchestrated from his native Nigeria and involved hundreds of perpetrators in several countries, detectives suspect.

He extracted from £2,000 to £600,000 from pensioners, who were deliberately targeted because they were potentially vulnerable to his tactics, bleeding them of their life savings while he enjoyed a life of fast cars, champagne and designer clothes.

Onyeachonam, 38, of Canning Town, east London, was found guilty at the Old Bailey of conspiracy to defraud following a three-week trial.

The jury of eight women and four men also found co-defendants Lawrencia Emenyonu, 38, and Bernard Armah, 51, both of Wood Green, north London, guilty of money laundering. All three denied the charges.

Emenyonu was jailed for 18 months while her partner Armah received an eight-month term.

Judge Rebecca Poulet QC, said there had been "some very serious outcomes" for the victims caught up in the scam.

She told married father-of-two Onyeachonam: "I judge your culpability to be very high. This was a very well thought out operation, sophisticated in both its planning and its operation.

"Mr Onyeachonam, you targeted these individuals because they were elderly and likely to agree and be tricked by this scam."

This was demonstrated in the fraudster's own notes in which he described them as "crippled, old or poor", she said.

The harm that was caused to these people could not just be calculated in financial terms but also on the "dreadful impact " on their lives, mental capacity and relationships with loved-ones.

The judge went on: "You contested the case in the face of powerful evidence. You demonstrated the arrogance that you must have carried with you throughout this fraud by continuing after you knew that the police had raided your premises."

The ruse - known as an "advance fee" fraud - saw Onyeachonam send victims emails claiming they had won millions of pounds on a non-existent Australian lottery and requesting a charge to release their winnings.

Investigators traced 14 victims - mainly from the US but including one from Britain - who were defrauded of a total of around £900,000.

But detectives believe this is the "tip of the iceberg" with evidence suggesting there may have been as many as 400 victims and the sum may be as high as £30 million.

Onyeachonam was seen as the key figure in the UK but police suspect a criminal network was in place in several countries around the world. Authorities found an alleged co-conspirator abroad had an email containing the details of more than 100,000 potential victims.

The defendant was thought to have started working on the scam almost immediately after he arrived in the UK from Nigeria in 2005, and was said to have carried on into 2012 while he was on bail
following his arrest the year before.

His crimes were uncovered in a three-year operation led by the National Crime Agency with assistance from the Postal Inspection Service and Internal Revenue Service in the US.

When they raided his luxury apartment in Canary Wharf police discovered an "Aladdin's cave" of evidence pointing to an advanced fee scam.

Among 200 exhibits were notebooks containing the names, addresses, cash tallies and other personal details relating to 406 people. Police estimate that the fraud is likely to have run to at least £5 million and possibly as high as £30 million if all those in the notebooks suffered losses.

Steve Brown, senior officer in the NCA's cyber crime unit, said the majority of Onyeachonam's victims were from America.

He is thought to have selected his targets from a database known among fraudsters as a "suckers list", which includes people who are believed to be susceptible to the tactics.

Mr Brown said: "Victims were sent an email from an alias used by Onyeachonam saying they had won an Australian lottery. They would be directed to ring him and he would say 'if you send me money I will then release your lottery funds'."

The lottery 'winnings' ranged from £2 million to £9 million and once they sent on cash victims were "hooked" into the "unrelenting" scam, he said.

He added: "Once they've got their claws into someone they won't stop. As long as they keep sending them money they will keep going until there's nothing left."

Using the alias Dr Jeff Lloyds, Onyeachonam built up a rapport with his victims and continued extracting money from some for as long as seven years.

In order to make the required payments several victims took out high interest loans, forcing them to come out of retirement to repay the debts.

Some of those exploited by Onyeachonam suffered the added trauma of falling under suspicion themselves as they were used as "pawns" in the criminal network to launder the proceeds of the fraud by sending on money from other victims or setting up business accounts.

Mr Brown said the scam had made a "mental wreck" of victims, "hammering" their life's savings, forcing them to lose their homes and leaving them isolated from their friends and families.

Emails showed victims pleaded with Onyeachonam to send them money to pay for healthcare, while some died before he could be brought to justice.

The British victim was left with debts of £90,000 and was forced to sell her home, move into rented accommodation and return to work in an attempt to stave off bankruptcy.

An American victim lost her dream home and she no longer speaks to her sister or friend.

She described how the scam made her feel like she had been "raped over and over again".

While he left a trail of destitution and devastation in his wake, Onyeachonam enjoyed the high life from the fruits of his deception.

Mr Brown said he lived a "cash rich" lifestyle, earning the nickname "Fizzy" for his taste for expensive champagne. Photographs show him surrounded by cash and bubbly in nightclubs.

His car collection included Porsches and Maseratis while his Thames-side flat was full of luxury brands such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton when it was searched by police.

Onyeachonam was the key figure as far as the "UK nexus" was concerned but detectives believe this was part of an international enterprise.

The alleged mastermind or "chairman" of the network is based in Nigerian capital Lagos and he is currently under investigation by authorities there.

Asked how many people were working on the global scam, Mr Brown said: "Name a country and there seems to be a connection. It's been almost impossible for us to track everybody down. They've all got responsibility for their own country."

The prosecution has moved for a confiscation hearing for Onyeachonam.

Marilyn Baldwin, founder of the Think Jessica, a charity set up to protect elderly and vulnerable people from scams, said: "Victims become trapped in a delusional world which becomes their reality and will often spend most of their days reading, sorting and sending money to keep up with the scammers' demands.

"This can go on for years. Many people think victims are driven by greed but in my experience this couldn't be further from the truth - they are driven by trust and become worried about letting the fictitious lottery officials, bankers, solicitors, down."

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