A Minnesota woman is going to prison for her role in a global fraud scheme that first duped her and then scammed others around the country out of more than $1.8 million through romance fraud schemes and pandemic aid programs.
Gayle J. Ferngren, 70, of Rush City, was sentenced Thursday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis to 1¾ years in prison after pleading guilty to mail fraud in connection with her transfer of most of the ill-gotten money to co-conspirators in far-flung locales, such as Egypt and South Africa.
Ferngren's sentence set by Judge John Tunheim includes orders to perform 100 hours of community service and repay $1.76 million to victims. Once her prison time is up, Ferngren will be on supervised release for two years.
Prosecutors argued ahead of sentencing for Ferngren to receive a two-year prison term, well below the federal guideline sentence of 4¼ to 5¼ years.
The filing pointed out that Ferngren, a retired widow, "was initially duped herself" in 2016 when she began communicating with a man on a dating website.
"He claimed to be a business owner located overseas and who was purportedly from Minnesota originally," the prosecution document continued. "In reality, this person was a series of scammers."
Within weeks, Ferngren was sending small amounts of money to someone she thought was romantically interested in her. She then started sending more money and gift cards and opened bank accounts for him, according to the filing.
"While Ms. Ferngren was seemingly misled initially," a presentence document read, "she soon became a knowing participant in the glaringly suspect conduct."
The prosecution further noted that "Ms. Ferngren's history of being victimized herself makes her criminal conduct all the more confounding and troubling since she knowingly victimized others. ... While Ms. Ferngren didn't get rich from her crime, she certainly benefited from a steady and reliable stream of easy money, victimized people's money."
The U.S. Attorney's Office has not disclosed whether any charges against Ferngren's co-conspirators have been filed so far, and others in the scheme are not referred to by name in the indictment, the plea agreement document or any filings in the months leading up sentencing.
According to the indictment and other court documents:
The scheme found its most lucrative source of fraud money through making false claims to multiple states' unemployment insurance programs and the federal Paycheck Protection Program. In Minnesota, Ferngren received at least 68 preloaded debit cards with more than $1.3 million in unemployment insurance benefits from state programs in California and Nevada.
Between May 2020 and February 2022, she and another co-conspirator bought more than $900,000 in Bitcoin at cryptocurrency ATMs in Minnesota using cash from the fraudulent cards. She and a co-conspirator later transferred more than $336,000 to cryptocurrency accounts controlled by at least two others overseas.
She also used the preloaded debit cards to withdraw more than $680,000 in cash between June 2020 and October 2020.
The indictment against Ferngren spelled out how romance scams also provided a source of income during the conspiracy. In one example, Ferngren deposited checks for $95,900 and $97,500, respectively, that were sent by a victim from Colorado under the direction of one of Ferngren's co-conspirators.
The scheme also misappropriated victims' personal information and funds. In April 2022, Ferngren received a check for $150,000 purported to be drawn against a home equity line of credit in the names of two Florida residents without their knowledge or approval.
Edina law enforcement warned Ferngren about her suspicious banking activities in April 2020. The next year, the Minnesota Commerce Fraud Bureau notified her that she may have engaged in fraudulent activity, including romance scams. In both cases, the indictment said, Ferngren warned her co-conspirators rather than put a stop to the schemes.