A Holocaust survivor wanted a companion but had US$2.8mil (RM11.90mil) worth of his life savings stolen after meeting a woman on a dating website, federal prosecutors said.
Now a woman in Florida, who is accused of draining the 87-year-old’s bank accounts, has been arrested in what officials are calling a “romance” scam, according to the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
While the man ended up losing his apartment due to the loss of his life savings, Peaches Stergo, 36, is accused of becoming a millionaire and used his money to buy a home in a gated community, a condo, a boat, cars and more, prosecutors said.
Stergo, of Champions Gate, a resort-style gated neighbourhood about 25 miles southwest of Orlando, was arrested on Jan 25 in connection with defrauding the Holocaust survivor, the attorney’s office announced in a news release.
To do so, Stergo “forged documents and impersonated a bank employee in exchange for a life of fancy trips, Rolex watches, and luxury purchases”, US Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement.
McClatchy News contacted the attorney’s office on Jan 25 inquiring about Stergo’s legal representation. Attorney contact information wasn’t immediately available.
She is facing a wire fraud charge, according to officials.
How the ‘romance’ scam unfolded
According to an indictment filed in US federal court, Stergo met the man, who was living in Manhattan at the time, on an unspecified dating website about six or seven years ago.
In 2017, Stergo is accused of lying to the man, who believed her name was “Alice”, about how she was purportedly awarded money in a lawsuit settlement after she was injured in a car accident, the indictment says.
Prosecutors said Stergo told the man that her lawyer refused to give her the money until she paid him a certain amount – so she asked the man for money to pay her lawyer.
The man, believing Stergo was telling the truth, wrote her a US$25,000 (RM106,262) check, the indictment shows.
This was the first of 62 checks he wrote her, prosecutors said.
After the first check, Stergo told the man she received the lawsuit settlement money in her TD Bank account, but prosecutors said her bank records didn’t reflect this and she never received money.
Then, the man was fed more lies as Stergo convinced him to send her checks almost every month that were typically US$50,000 (RM212,525) each, prosecutors said.
She “told the (man) that her bank needed more money, otherwise the accounts would be frozen, and (he) would never be paid back”, the indictment says. He “continued to write checks because he was afraid he would never see his money again”.
To continue the scheme, Stergo impersonated a TD Bank employee and promised the man that he would be repaid if he continued to send her money through emails and letters that appeared to come from TD Bank, according to prosecutors.
In October 2021, the man stopped sending Stergo money when his son told him that he was getting scammed, the indictment says.
Meanwhile, Stergo is accused of living luxuriously off of the man’s life savings.
Along with buying real estate, cars and a boat, Stergo used the stolen money to go on trips, buy expensive meals, gold, jewellery and designer clothes, prosecutors said.
The government wants Stergo to forfeit the property and everything she bought with the man’s money, the indictment shows.
If convicted on the wire fraud charge, she could be sentenced up to 20 years in prison, according to officials.
Stergo “callously preyed on a senior citizen simply seeking companionship, defrauding him of his life savings”, FBI Assistant Director Michael J. Driscoll said in a statement.
As for the man, prosecutors didn’t provide further details on his background in regards to surviving the Holocaust, which was the genocide of European Jews carried out by Nazi Germany during World War II.
Six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust between 1933 and 1945. – The Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service