US v. Ayelotan, Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Filed March 4, 2019: Online Romance Scam Ends in Lengthy Prison Sentences

The three defendants in US v. Ayelotan were sentenced to the statutory maximum (115, 95, and 25 years, respectively) after they were convicted for online romance scams that may have cost the alleged victims more than $50 million.

What is a catfish scam or online romance scam, and how do people fall for it? How can you avoid catfish scams and protect yourself online?

What can we learn about the federal evidence rules and federal sentencing from the Ayelotan case?

What is a Catfish Scam or Online Romance Scam?

The Better Business Bureau estimates that more than a million victims of catfish scams or online romance scams have lost nearly $1 billion over the last three years in the US and Canada.

An online romance scam is a “long con” that uses impersonation, trickery, and sometimes blackmail to eventually scam money from the unsuspecting victim. According to the Better Business Bureau, the scams usually involve:

  • Contact through a dating website, dating app, or social media, where the scammer tries to build a relationship with the target and then move to another method of communication like texting or email;
  • Grooming where the scammer attempts to gain the target’s trust by regular contact, sending small gifts or flowers, and possibly asking for small favors to gauge the target’s likelihood of falling for the big scam when it comes;
  • Asking for money. Once a relationship has been formed with the target, the scammer will ask for money. Maybe there is an emergency that they need help with, or maybe they need help buying a plane ticket to come and visit. Sometimes the scammer will send money to the target – making them an unwitting money launderer for drug trafficking or other criminal activities; and
  • Continuing fraud – once the scammer realizes that the target is willing to pay, they will keep taking their money for as long as possible…

Although online romance scams often target older people, anyone could become a victim.

Losing your money is not the only danger – some online romance scams involve kidnapping, money laundering or other crimes, and blackmail.

Blackmail Online Romance Scams

For example, in a recent online romance scam in South Carolina, a scammer would pose as a 20-something girl on a dating website. The “girl” meets a young male, begins talking with them, and then exchanges nude pictures…

Soon after, “the girl’s angry father” calls the target male, telling him that the girl is his daughter and she is only 14 years old. The father lets the target know he will be getting a call from law enforcement.

Sure enough, an “FBI agent” calls next, and caller ID confirms that the call is coming from the local FBI field office. The FBI agent tells the target they are preparing to arrest him for soliciting a minor, but he may be able to avoid all of this by paying restitution to the victim’s attorney.

Within a day or two, the “victim’s attorney” calls – and caller ID confirms that the call is coming from a local attorney’s office. The attorney is going to file a lawsuit unless the target or their family immediately pays the restitution amount…

Obviously, the girl, the FBI agent, the father, and the attorney are not real – the scammers are impersonating them and spoofing the phone numbers.

The FBI is overwhelmed with calls about these scams – if you experience anything like this, call a defense lawyer immediately who can investigate and confirm whether you are about to be arrested or whether you are the target of an online scam.

FYI – federal law enforcement agents will never ask you to pay them money in lieu of getting charged. You should only handle a situation like this through an attorney who can 1) investigate the scammers to confirm whether they are real or not; and 2) minimize the damage if you are, in fact, the target of a legitimate law enforcement investigation.

Ayelotan – Fifth Circuit Denies Appeal and Affirms Lengthy Prison Sentences in Online Romance Scam

The defendants in the Ayelotan case used dating websites like seniorpeoplemeet.com to meet unsuspecting victims, form relationships with them, and:

  • Steal their personal information like credit card or bank account numbers;
  • Impersonate the victims to get cash advances or take money from their accounts; and
  • Trick the victims into laundering their stolen money for them, sometimes making them unwitting “money mules.”

They were arrested and charged after one potential target called the police, resulting in a Homeland Security Agent posing as the target and gathering evidence as the scheme played out.

The defendants were convicted of:

  • Conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud, and bank fraud;
  • Conspiracy to commit identity theft;
  • Use of unauthorized access devices;
  • Theft of government property; and
  • Conspiracy to commit money laundering.

The Court sentenced each of them to the statutory maximum sentence for each conviction and made the sentences consecutive (the sentence for each charge runs one after the other instead of simultaneously).

The Defendants were Shackled During Trial

The Fifth Circuit held that shackles on the defendants’ legs during the trial were not a Due Process violation.

Although it is uncommon, a trial court can shackle a defendant when there is a “particular reason” for the shackles and a “special need.” In this case, there had been a “ruckus” at a previous hearing where a SWAT team had to be called in.

The Fifth Circuit found that this, plus the US Marshal’s recommendation that the defendants be shackled, was a good enough reason to shackle them, and noted that the shackles were not visible to jurors at any point during the trial.

Emails were Admissible Under a Hearsay Exception

The Fifth Circuit held that a slew of emails admitted into evidence during trial did not violate the hearsay rule because:

  • The emails were admitted under the business records exception to the hearsay rule;
  • A records custodian was not required to testify at trial because the emails were self-authenticating – they contained a certificate of transmittal from Google and Yahoo email that satisfied the federal rules of evidence;
  • The contents of the emails were not hearsay because they either 1) were not “offered for the truth of the matter asserted,” or 2) they were admissible as statements of an opposing party and statements of a co-conspirator under Rule 801(d); and
  • They were not a violation of the Confrontation Clause under Crawford because they were not “testimonial” – they were not created in anticipation of a court case or litigation.

The Best Evidence Rule

The Fifth Circuit held that admission of a copy of one defendant’s passport did not violate the “best evidence rule” because the defendant lost his passport, not the government, and because “a duplicate is admissible to the same extent as the original unless a genuine question is raised about the original’s authenticity or the circumstances make it unfair to admit a duplicate.”

The Trial Court Removed a Juror Who was the only Holdout

What does a trial court do if they want to see a defendant convicted but there’s that one, pesky juror who is holding out and who is about to cause a hung jury and mistrial?

The Fifth Circuit held that it was not error for the trial court to remove one of the jurors when the other jurors complained that he was a lone holdout refusing to vote for conviction…

The Court held that there were legitimate reasons for the trial court to remove the juror apart from, “he’s throwing a wrench in the gears and we want a conviction,” including:

  • He slept during part of the testimony;
  • The other jurors complained that he refused to follow the law;
  • Other jurors said he refused to deliberate with them; and
  • Other jurors said he had trouble comprehending the court’s instructions.

The Federal Rules allow a judge to remove a juror who cannot perform their duties. In this case, though, it sounds like “perform his duty” consisted of voting to convict.

Whether the court was able to articulate reasons for removing the juror or not, it looks like the defendants were about to get a hung jury and mistrial and the court was not going to stand for it, so the court removed the juror…

No Sentencing Errors

The Court went on to affirm the trial court’s sentences for each of the defendants, finding that the statutory maximum sentences of 115 years, 95 years, and 25 years, respectively, were not unreasonable and were supported by the evidence presented.

Federal White Collar Defense and Criminal Appellate Lawyer in Columbia, SC

Elizabeth Franklin-Best is a federal criminal defense and federal appellate lawyer in Columbia, SC who defends white-collar criminal cases.

For more information, call us at (803) 331-3421 or email us through our website to set up a consultation about your case.

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