Online dating scam case delayed

Cape Town - Unexpected technicalities delayed court proceedings on Wednesday in a case involving four men and three women allegedly involved in an online dating scam.

They appeared in the Bellville Specialised Commercial Crime Court, in Cape Town, before Magistrate Sabrina Sonnenberg. They face 77 counts of fraud and one framed in terms of the Prevention of Organised Crime Act (Poca).

Of the men, three are Nigerians and one a Ghanaian. Two of the women are Nigerians and the third a South African.

Before the court were Oluwaseun Olumuyuwa, 36, Oluwasey Ogbechi, 39, Lucky Prempeh, 28, Pius Okunbor, 37, Ruth Mrewa, no age given, Sandiswa Okunbor, no age given, and Abigail Petersen, 28.

One "gremlin" was a high court preservation order that froze the bank account of one of the accused, rendering him unable to pay his legal fees.

Defence attorney John Riley told the court he would launch a high court application to unfreeze the account.

Another was the absence of two members of the legal team - one for reasons not explained, and the other for medical reasons.

A third was that one of the accused wished to conclude a plea-and-sentence agreement with prosecutor Juan Agulhas. A fourth obstacle was that two of the lawyers wished to submit representations for the withdrawal of the charges to the head of the Specialised Commercial Crime Unit, Malini Govender.

The four men were arrested last May in a room at the Lagoon Beach Hotel in Milnerton, Cape Town.

The charge sheet lists 21 victims, all of whom were duped in online dating chats.

The State alleges the seven accused created false online dating profiles, and targeted vulnerable victims with whom they built up trust, and then asked for money, "ostensibly for emergencies".

According to the charge sheet one of the victims, an Australian woman, started chatting online with a fictitious called Donald Caine, who claimed to be a semi-retired petroleum engineering consultant based on the island of Fiji.

Caine was looking for a buyer for an expensive painting that he inherited from his late father and falsely informed the woman that it was about to be auctioned against his will.

The victim received a call, ostensibly from a Cape Town customs official, who said the painting had not been properly declared and that Caine needed money urgently to pay customs duty to get the painting to Sydney, Australia.

Caine promised to repay the money, but failed to do so.

The victim was then duped by a woman claiming to be Caine's sister, who said her brother had died and had left his estate, worth $6 million, to the victim.

Another victim got involved in online dating with a woman named Zuska, who claimed to own a painting worth R35m.

Zuska falsely informed the victim that she had been arrested by customs officials and needed money to secure her release.

Agulhas alleges the scam generally involved non-existent valuable paintings that could not be converted into money due to restrictions.

The accused were warned to appear in court again on 30 September.