It often started with a hope for love, then quickly turned into a promise of gold. In one tragic case, it ended in death.
A woman had struck up a romance on a dating website with a man who said he was a United States soldier stationed overseas. He claimed to have more than $12 million worth of gold from Syria but needed help bringing it to the United States, so she sent him $93,000.
He sent back a photograph of an Israeli diplomat she was supposed to meet at the Baltimore airport who was going to bring her “two trunks with ‘family treasure’,” according to a criminal complaint. But he never showed up. The next day, she killed herself.
The United States attorney for New Jersey has said that the woman’s death was part of a complex and brazen fraud that swindled more than 30 people out of about $2.1 million.
The scheme, officials said, was run by two people in New Jersey and their associates in Ghana. It usually involved someone posing as an American service member on a dating website and “wooing” a target “with words of love,” according to the complaint.
While internet frauds have persisted for years, the breadth of the swindle stands out, as well as the fact that it led to arrests.
On Wednesday, the F.B.I. arrested one New Jersey man, Rubbin Sarpong, for conspiracy to commit wire fraud. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. A lawyer for Mr. Sarpong did not respond to a message seeking comment.
The case also comes amid growing scrutiny of the proliferation of this type of fraud and struggles by tech companies and the military to stop them.
Following The Times’s reporting, Representative Adam Kinzinger said he was considering legislation to force Facebook and other companies to do more to prevent such frauds. The congressman, who is also in the Air National Guard, said scammers have used his likeness for years to defraud people online.
On Thursday, Mr. Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, criticized Facebook for its announcement that users in the United States could now create dating profiles on its platform. Facebook said the service, Facebook Dating, was already available in 19 countries — including Brazil, Canada and Vietnam — and it was aiming for a European release next year.
“Rather than compound this issue with a dating platform, Facebook should focus its attention and resources on putting a stop to the scams and fake accounts,” he said in a statement.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, has said it requires people to use their real identities on its sites, though it does not require proof. To eliminate impostor accounts, the company has said it invested in more human reviewers and new software to automatically spot fakes. Facebook has said it blocked billions of fake accounts over the past year, though its estimate for the number of active fakes has continued to increase to roughly 120 million.
A Facebook spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
Mr. Sarpong’s arrest this week comes on the heels of a separate case last month in which federal authorities charged 80 people, accusing them of involvement in a Nigerian crime ring that stole at least $6 million via email, romance and other internet swindles. Fourteen people were arrested in the United States, but scores of other suspects are not in the country.
The two recent cases are unusual because scammers are often able to stay out of reach of American law enforcement since they are based abroad, often in West Africa, said Patrick Peterson, chief executive of Agari, a cybersecurity firm that tracks internet fraud.
“What makes this very unique,” he said, “is Mr. Sarpong lives in New Jersey, and his co-conspirators are still safe and sound in Ghana, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in proceeds.”
Mr. Peterson said the two cases suggested that American authorities were trying to do more to combat such romance frauds, which data shows are increasing. The F.B.I. said it received nearly 18,500 complaints from victims of romance or similar internet frauds last year, with reported losses exceeding $362 million, up 71 percent from 2017.
Law enforcement is “starting to crack the code on how to do this repeatedly and at scale, and they’re trying to invest more because the losses are so high,” Mr. Peterson said.
In New Jersey, the fake relationships moved fast and did not last long. Many had similar themes: an introduction through a dating website; a soldier overseas; gold bars worth millions; and a few pesky bills to be paid before both the suitor, and treasure, could materialize.
The fraud started in January 2016, officials said. That’s when a woman said she began talking with a man claiming to be a petty officer in the United States Navy, stationed in Canada. He asked the woman to send him $3,000. She later told authorities she wound up losing about $50,000.
In November 2016, another victim was contacted. Over the course of four months, this person sent nearly $200,000 to a man who said he was in the military and needed help getting “approximately $10 million dollars in gold bars and cash out of Syria,” according to the complaint. The impostor spoke to the victim through the dating website Plenty of Fish, and Google Hangouts.
In October 2017, another victim was contacted by two people. One claimed to be an American soldier in Syria, the other claimed he was a diplomat helping the soldier “in getting gold to the United States,” according to the complaint. By December, this person started to send money, ultimately providing about $144,000.
Most of the swindles featured impostors posing as soldiers. Some did not. For example, in February, one victim was contacted by a person who said she was living in Florida and awaiting “a large inheritance, mostly in gold, from her father’s estate,” the complaint said.
To get the inheritance, the victim was asked to give money to a second person, a lawyer in Ghana, in order to pay “court costs, airway bills, document fees, export fees and taxes,” according to the complaint. Between April and June, the victim paid more than $300,000, officials said.
Of the $2.1 million obtained, about 40 percent went to Mr. Sarpong, officials said. While Mr. Sarpong hid behind a parade a fake online personas that took in millions, officials said, he also boasted about his finances on Instagram, under his own name.
Officials said Mr. Sarpong used social media “to communicate about the conspiracy and its proceeds.” Some pictures on Instagram that were highlighted by officials show Mr. Sarpong with large stacks of dollar bills. Many included the hashtag #RichLifeStyle.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.