Sharon Turner was victim of a scam after she joined a dating website
“Good morning beautiful. How are you?” he said. Excited to hear from him, Sharon quickly replied. What Sharon didn’t know, however, was that the message wasn’t from a businessman and he wasn’t called Kevin. In fact, he wasn’t a person at all. Instead, Kevin Churchill was a generic dating profile set up by a gang of ruthless criminals, specifically designed to exploit money from vulnerable people. Today members of the gang are being sentenced after being convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud by misrepresentation at Guildford Crown Court earlier this month.
And others have been convicted of “converting criminal property”, a form of money laundering, in connection with the fraud ring.
“This is the first time a gang has been convicted of this type of crime,” says Detective Rebecca Mason, of Surrey Police.
Before meeting Kevin online, Sharon had been single for 16 years.
“My marriage broke down, it was a very difficult time,” says Sharon, 63, who is originally from South Africa but now lives in London and works in property but struggled to cope with the split.
“There were three people in my office who’d met their partners online, so I thought it was worth a shot.”
In October 2016, Sharon set up a profile on a website aimed at people aged 40-plus.
And two weeks later, she matched with Kevin Churchill.
“The initial message was low-key. It just said he liked my profile and asked if I’d be interested in chatting,” she says.
Before long she and Kevin were exchanging messages every day. Kevin started dropping hints he was wealthy.
Detective Rebecca Mason, of Surrey Police
“It said on his profile he lived in Chelsea, then a couple of days later it said Chiswick.
“I asked why he’d changed it, and he replied that women were always after his money.”
Kevin asked Sharon for her mobile number and they started texting and chatting on the phone.
“He sounded very well-spoken, which fitted with what he’d told me,” she says. Soon afterwards, Kevin sent flowers. “I couldn’t believe that after all this time on my own, I’d found someone who wanted me,” she says.
The couple arranged to meet in person in November, but at the last minute Kevin cancelled, saying he had a business trip.
“He told me he ran a company that supplied medical equipment all over the world, so travelled regularly between the UK, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Haiti.”
Sharon was disappointed, but trusted they would meet soon.
Then a few weeks later, in early December, Kevin asked her to lend him some money, promising to repay it in a couple days.
“He said his dog was in kennels as he was away, and he needed someone to pay an £800 vet bill. He told me he couldn’t transfer the money himself because he banked with Coutts.
“I’d never heard of Coutts but when I looked it up, I saw that only the creme de la creme bank there.” Not having any reason to doubt him, Sharon transferred the money. Kevin never met her to return the £800 but they carried on chatting over Christmas and more requests for money came in.
Kevin told Sharon he was in Haiti, trying to recover money for medical equipment he’d sold to the government after the earthquake in 2010. He said he needed funds for transport and legal fees.
“Looking back, I wonder how I could have fallen for it. But it’s human nature: we all want to be with somebody and to be loved by somebody.” Sharon paid him the money, drawing on her savings. As the months rolled on, she had moments of suspicion. “Some of his messages had an aggressive tone,” she says “To test him, I started asking questions I’d asked a few months earlier, like the name of his dog. But every time, he gave the
In February 2017, Kevin asked an even bigger favour.
“He mentioned he’d been dealing with a politician in Haiti, and said a man was coming to Brussels to pay him money he was owed.
“He wanted me to go and fetch it, and bring a thank you gift of £2,000 for the man. Believing that if she collected the money she would finally be repaid, Sharon travelled to Brussels, where she was met by two well-dressed men. After handing over the cash she came back to the UK. But once again, she didn’t get any money back. By this time, Sharon realises something was amiss but she couldn’t stop giving Kevin money. “I equate it to a gambling addiction because it’s exactly the same,” she says. “I knew I was in a deep hole and couldn’t see a way out of it. I just had to carry on and hope Kevin was who he said he was.” Sharon hadn’t told friends or family that she was dating.
Obed Addo, 37, from Roehampton
“I didn’t want to say I was dating somebody I’d met online, in case people thought I was desperate. But her grown-up daughter who lived with her at the time, was growing suspicious and eventually confronted the issue in February 2017.
Sharon denied everything. But the amounts of money Kevin demanded increased, and Sharon started borrowing large sums from family and friends.
“I lied about what the money was for, I felt so ashamed.” By April, her daughter was so worried she told her brother and they called the police. “My children said: ‘You’ve been groomed’, but I wouldn’t accept it.”
But as police investigated, details emerged of a sophisticated scam.
“The gang was very good at what they did. The ring-leader had five different time zones on his phone, so he knew when to ring the victims, depending on which country he claimed to be in,” says Detective Mason. “And we discovered the gang had paid a man in Berlin more than £100,000 to video call the women they were conning, so they could look around his house and see his Porsche on the drive.”
The magnitude of what had happened started to dawn on Sharon.
“I was in denial about how much money I’d given him, but in the end it was close to £200,000. I was mortified.”
Nicholas Adade Adu, 23, of Stoke on Trent
Those in court expected to be sentenced today are Yaw Sarpong, 22, Nicholas Adade Adu, 23, Eric Ocansey, 35, Obed Addo, 37, Daniel Keh, 25, and Makeda Stair, 23.
All have been convicted or have admitted to related offences.
Obed Addo, 37, from Roehampton, South-west London was found guilty of converting criminal property. Daniel Keh, of Enfield, West London, pleaded guilty to converting criminal property and supplying articles to be used in fraud.
And Makeda Stair, of Enfield pleaded guilty to converting criminal property and possession of articles to be used in fraud.
The case was based on only the experiences of two women who lost £240,000 between them, one of them Sharon – police think there were more victims who were too embarrassed to come forward and estimate the gang may have got away with £1million before the arrests.
All the money was either cash or sent out of the country so police have said the victims will never get it back.
Sharon is not alone in being a victim of dating fraud. The latest figures show that it’s on the rise, with £50million lost in the UK in 2018.
“When it finally hit me, I had suicidal thoughts. I would never have done anything, but I understood why people who are crippled financially take their own lives.”
Eric Ocansey, 35, of Birmingham
“Financially I’ve been ruined. I’ll be paying people back for a long time,” she says.
Sharon received counselling and took antidepressants for two years.
But with support from her son and daughter, she has come to terms with what happened.
“They were obviously angry to begin with but they were also very supportive.
“They were more concerned about my state of mind and well-being, so they never mentioned their inheritance, although that’s what the money would have been.”
Now Sharon has a new partner. “He’s fabulous and treats me like gold,” she says.
But she is determined to warn others who might fall victim to fraud. “I can’t thank the police enough for their dedication,” she says. “I know I’ll never recover, but I hope others can learn from my mistakes.”