How a romance-scam victim laundered $1.1M worth of other victims' money

Audrey Elaine Elrod was divorced, depressed and broke when a romance-scammer targeted her on Facebook, posing as a widowed Scottish oil-rig worker who admired her photo and sympathized with her plight.

The scammer's pitch was crude, but it got past Elrod's negligible defenses, and before long, she was wiring him money to help with his "son," who had been sending her messages from "boarding school" about his pleasure at having a new woman in a semi-adoptive parenting role.

The scammer took her for everything she had, costing her her home and car, and simultaneously getting her to launder money for his "friend," a "Nigerian bank manager" who needed assistance to help his clients convert their money to dollars without tipping off the corrupt Nigerian authorities. Soon she was picking up wire transfers at her own account, converting them to multiple money-orders and sending them back from different remittance services all over her collapsed West Virginia coal town.

Elrod ended up moving back in with her mother, then became homeless when her mother kicked her out after a fight about her "fiancee" and whether Elrod would be allowed to use family members' bank accounts to launder money for him.

She became an itinerant, opening bank accounts, using friends' accounts, and always communicating with her "fiancee" and their "son" about the time that was coming soon when her man would leave the oil rig, pick up his nest egg, and come to be with her. Even when she was picked up by local law enforcement, she didn't break free of her fantasy — rather she calmly explained the situation to them and showed them her meticulous records of the money she'd moved around for these people she knew online.

The money she was moving was money from other romance-scam victims, who had been roped by confederates of her own scammer.

Eventually she ended up in jail, serving a 31 year sentence and on the hook for $413,790.91 in restitution to 28 of the 374 victims whose money she helped send to Nigeria. The crooks who bilked her (and them) are "Yahoo Boys," part of a well-established criminal group in Nigeria who operate (and co-operate) with impunity.

Brendan Koerner's excellent Wired profile of Elrod gives a sense of how she was drawn in, and then drawn deeper, and how, even now, she half-believes that she has a lover in Scotland who'll come and get her someday.

Beck, Elrod's defense attorney, contends that his client's mindset was warped by her yen to become a mother and that she sincerely believed that doing Sinclair's bidding would somehow result in Kevin being sent to live with her. "In most instances, when criminals find out how big the thing is that they're involved in, they want a bigger piece of the pie," Beck says. "She didn't want that, she didn't want a bigger piece. What she wanted was a son."

In Elrod's own account of her ruin, however, what's most striking is her lingering fondness for McGregor. Though he was the linchpin of a scheme that has caused her immense sorrow, Elrod treasures the moments of happiness he brought her—moments that she now understands were part of a manufactured illusion but that nonetheless occupy a special place in her heart. "I still think about his phone number. I still close my eyes and think about his emails," she told me in early April, at the West Virginia prison where she's serving a 52-month sentence after pleading guilty to structuring and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. "I can think of the messages he sent me, the little things he said to me, and it makes me smile. He was the only one I ever let get that close to me."

Elrod dabbed her eyes with a coarse brown paper towel as she spoke those words in her honeyed Appalachian drawl. Her graying forelocks and careworn face hinted at the hardships she's endured in prison: The abdominal pain she felt while on the run turned out to be a symptom of acute cholecystitis, which led to the removal of her gallbladder and a near-fatal case of sepsis. Her skin now has a sallow hue that makes her streaks of purple eyeshadow seem all the more vivid.

[Brendan I. Koerner/Wired]

(Image: Audrey Elaine Elrod)