Romance Scammer Brothers Targeted Elderly Victims on ‘Words With Friends’: Authorities

Kate Briquelet
·6-min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

Two brothers in Maryland are charged in a $5-million scheme that involved a network of fraudsters who romanced more than 200 victims—many of them “elderly and isolated”—to siphon funds from their savings and retirement accounts.

David Annor, 27, and Lesley Annor, 22, of Gaithersburg, were arrested for money laundering last week. The feds say their co-conspirators courted the victims, ages 38 to 83, using a roster of phony identities with back stories fit for a soap opera.

One man claimed to be a military service member in Afghanistan who needed tens of thousands of dollars for surgery. Another said he was an underwater welder whose equipment was damaged at a job site. Then there was the single mom who’d just finished nursing school in Germany and needed money to pay her lawyer.

Eight victims in particular lost between $17,500 and $201,000 in the bogus love affairs, according to an FBI affidavit filed in support of a criminal complaint.

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“The criminal complaint charges that these defendants were part of a conspiracy that stole from many vulnerable and elderly victims from around the world, defrauding them through lies and laundering the funds internationally,” U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur said in a statement. “The deceit used to steal from these victims was heartless.”

The feds say David Annor registered a shell company called Ravid Enterprise LLC to launder money from the fantasy love plots. But in corporation filings, Annor described the entity as “a car sale business where buyers come in to get cars which are from the auction.” The company’s listed address was David and Lesley’s Gaithersburg apartment.

From at least May 2017 to September 2020, the brothers opened accounts at 10 different banks using the name of the supposed business.

The affidavit describes how co-conspirators wooed the victims online and, after sharing tales of hardship, directed them to wire money to accounts controlled by the Annors or a person identified only as “Co-Conspirator A.” The fake companions also had the victims send cashier’s checks to the Annors’ home.

Authorities say the conspirators in the scam were living in the U.S. and Ghana and found their victims through Facebook and dating sites like Match.com, before chatting them up over email, cellphone and Google Hangouts.

One 55-year-old Texas woman was targeted by a man named “Bruce McGee James,” whom she met on Facebook in September 2016. James claimed he was deployed in Afghanistan but planned to retire and return to America. He asked the woman to help him retrieve a box containing money, gold, and a necklace his mother gave him before she died. A security company in Ghana was keeping the box, he said, and he needed her to contact the firm and say she was his wife so they’d ship it to the U.S.

The woman emailed the purported firm, which replied that “diplomatic express delivery” would cost $5,000. The firm’s email response included grammatical errors: “This charges includes insurance to ensure its complete safety and its also going to be delivered to you personally with the help of a diplomat.”

After this payment, the woman and James continued speaking. In September 2017, a sham physician named “Dr. Paul” emailed her to say James was in a car wreck with his son in Afghanistan and needed “a femur surgery for both legs which will cost him 5000 pounds.” The doc added: “Surgery will begin immediately payment is made.” The woman wired the funds to a bank account in David Annor’s name.

In late October 2017, James again told the woman he’d travel to the U.S. to be with her but said, “I need to make payments to be released immediately.” Still, James didn’t travel to see her and instead told her the hospital needed more money to release him.

“Baby you can use western union,” James told the victim. “Can you go send it right now babe?” The woman lost $100,000 to the romance scheme.

James’ name is listed on a website called Romancescam.com, where one user posted images of a handsome, silver-haired military man and noted another of his monikers: Colonel Stuart James from San Francisco.

Indeed, the affidavit reveals how detailed the con artists were in their lies.

A second victim fell prey to “Brett Fernley.” The 63-year-old Virginia woman met Fernley on Facebook around September 2018, and he described himself as an underwater welder from Canada who lived in Florida but was presently working near Ireland.

Fernley claimed his equipment was damaged and he was short $9,600 to apparently repair it. In a Google Hangouts message, Fernley told her he was “just a little bit troubled with the weather and how badly it has affected the equipments I’m using… the cable installing equipments and the 2 drilling equipments got damaged.”

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The scammer bilked the woman out of $177,000, and she had to liquidate some of her 401(k) to send money to the man, who never repaid her.

Meanwhile, a third victim met “John Powell,” who claimed to be a military contractor in Afghanistan, on the Smule karaoke app. The 63-year-old Hawaii woman said Powell claimed he had a package of cash that he wanted to send her for safekeeping. First, he needed money to ship the parcel to her residence.

According to the affidavit, bank records revealed that $17,150 from the woman was deposited into various bank accounts for David Annor and Ravid Enterprise.

The scammers also targeted a 58-year-old man in Washington state who cashed out his 401(k) and sent $201,000 to a woman named “Anita Heinrich.” He met Heinrich on Match.com, and one week later, she told him she loved him.

Heinrich claimed she’d just completed nursing school in Germany and planned to relocate to Washington to be with him. She said both her parents died and left her an inheritance, and that her only living relatives were her 16-year-old son, Joel, and her grandfather who owned a company in the U.S. Heinrich said she needed money for lawyer’s fees, and directed the victim to mail two cashier’s checks totaling $201,000 to David and Co-Conspirator A; she claimed they were accountants for her grandpa.

A fifth victim, a 78-year-old Georgia woman, told investigators she developed a romantic relationship with a swindler named “Gabriel Scott” after meeting him while playing the online game “Words With Friends.”

Using yet another fictional biography, Scott told the woman he was from Washington state but working on an oil rig off the coast of Venezuela. He was divorced, and his two daughters had died in a car accident.

Scott encouraged the woman to invest her money in a “high interest” savings account he claimed would earn 10 percent interest, and he identified David and Lesley as the “contact people” handling this account. The woman lost about $20,000 in the ruse.

While authorities interviewed at least 25 victims in the scheme, they’ve identified over 200 people “who fit the profile of victims in this case,” the affidavit says.

If convicted, David Annor and Lesley Annor each face a maximum of 20 years behind bars. It’s unclear whether more people will be charged in the scheme.

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