Russian prosecutors have charged a group of 35 men with posing online as women to scam dozens of foreigners out of cash.
The men managed to swindle 125 men from Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany and the US out of a total of 5m roubles (£100,000), prosecutors in the Volga region of Mari El said in a statement on Thursday.
The accused worked out of rented flats in the republic’s capital, Yoshkar-Ola, and the nearby village of Medvedevo from the autumn of 2004 through to July 2007. Each flat had 10 computers that were manned 24 hours a day, usually by 15 people at a time, say prosecutors.
“Acting as female residents of the republic, members of the criminal group carried out electronic correspondence with foreigners under the pretext of getting to know each other.
“In the course of their communications, they asked the foreigners to send money for the various needs of their ‘beloveds.'” Those who did sent from $100 (£63) to $4,000,prosecutors added.
The group then used the cash to pay expenses, including rent, buying new computers and paying off local police so they would not be investigated, the statement said.
Prosecutors did not explain what prompted the investigation into the group, only that the arrests came “as a result of a special large-scale operation” conducted by the republic’s FSB office in concert with US homeland security.
Most members of the group are students in their 20s, the statement said. They have been charged with fraud and forming a criminal group and could face up to 10 years in prison.
The US embassy in Moscow devotes an entire section of its website warning that it “receives reports almost every day of fraud committed against US citizens by internet correspondents professing love and romantic interest”.
Scammers usually use professional models’ photographs gleaned from the internet before tricking their targets into sending money for airline tickets, visas and other expenses.