A federal judge sentenced a Coon Rapids man to three years in prison Thursday for his part in a romance scam that bilked more than a million dollars out of lonely older people.
U.S. District Judge Katherine M. Menendez also ordered Solomon E. Wilfred, 43, to pay $1.35 million in restitution to his victims and serve three more years of supervised release once he's finished the federal prison term.
Wilfred pleaded guilty to mail fraud charges in June for his role in a sophisticated scam using phony personas, such as a senior U.S. diplomat or military official, to target elderly people on social media apps during the height of COVID-19 pandemic isolation. He and co-conspirators pursued romantic connections with the victims and asked them for money on the false premise of a financial crisis. Sometimes Wilfred's alleged co-conspirators introduced themselves to victims as intermediaries who could corroborate the fictional stories, the charges stated.
The scammers eventually directed their victims to send them large sums of money by mail or other means to a specified name and address.
From June 2020 through March 2021, "Wilfred received over 400 packages containing approximately $1,294,995," according to the plea agreement. "Wilfred kept some of the proceeds for his personal benefit and shared proceeds with other scheme participants."
Prosecutors said Wilfred primarily helped with the collection and transfer of the fraudulently obtained funds. He opened at least six Post Office boxes in Minnesota and received hundreds of victims' packages.
Wilfred directly communicated with some victims, prosecutors said. Under the guise of one of the fake personas, he sent them romantic cards with wedding rings or other gifts. "This deepened the fictitious romantic connection and lured the victims into sending more money," federal prosecutors say.
Wilfred's attorney didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Friday morning.
Two other suspected participants in this scam, Dodzi K. Kordorwu and Bonnie Jean Hoolsema, are also charged in separate cases. Those are still pending in Minnesota's U.S. District Court system.
Romance scams like this are increasingly common. The FBI says about 24,000 victims in the United States reported losing about $1 billion to romance scams in 2021. Researchers say they prey specifically on seniors and older people, some capitalizing on the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic to find lonely victims.
"I have a graduate degree; I knew about these scammers," a victim of a romance scam told the Star Tribune. "I never imagined I could fall into something like this."
Staff writers Paul Walsh and Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.