Last year on Valentine’s Day, a 70-year-old woman lost her husband. A few months later, while she was in the hospital, she met a new man on Facebook. He was charming and confident, and he needed her help. His story was like something stolen from the pages of an old pulp adventure magazine: His name was General Austin Miller and he was in the Army, stationed overseas in Afghanistan and also in Syria. He chatted with the widow online, earning her trust and affection.
General Miller promised he planned to return to the U.S. soon, but first he wanted to secure his future. And because he had important papers and jewels in Syria he needed to ship back home, he instructed the widow to use FedEx to get money to a “diplomatic courier.” She did as she was told, sending three checks totaling $334,500, which was a lot of money for her. In fact, to get the cash together, she had to sell her home, her RV and her jewelry.
After the FBI arrived in Prescott, Arizona and interviewed the widow about the scam, she admitted that she “felt shame, embarrassment and guilt.” That was the emotional toll, but there were more tangible consequences, too; the widow confessed to the agents that she “did not have food to eat last week and has not been able to pay her bills.”
And yet, the very same morning the FBI arrived, “General Miller” had reached out to her again, asking for $1,300. At the end of their visit, one of the field agents noted in his report, “Shortly after my interview, [the widow] was hospitalized due to concerning comments she made to me and officers from the Prescott Valley PD.”
The widow was just one of many victims of the latest expansive romance scam to make it to federal court. In it, the con artist preyed upon elderly women, especially widows, using a promise of romance with a general who’s stuck overseas. Despite how outlandish it might seem, the story enabled the scammer to rake in roughly $1 million. That is, until May, when federal authorities arrested Fola Alabi, aka Folayemi Alabi, a 51-year-old Nigerian man in Richmond, Texas who is now facing multiple charges of fraud.
Of course, scams against the elderly aren’t uncommon — they’re the group most vulnerable to online fraud, especially those involving romance, which cost seniors more than $84 million in 2019 alone. But what makes the “General Miller” scam particularly egregious is that the elaborate lies would have been easy to check with a quick Google search — as Alabi used the real names of actual generals currently serving in the military.
For example, court documents show that one name he used was General James McConville, who is currently the 40th Chief of Staff — the highest ranking officer in the Army. He’s also married with three adult children. Still, when the FBI showed up at a 79-year-old’s door in San Jose to ask questions, the victim’s husband told the FBI agents that he estimated his wife had lost $480,000 to a “General McConville.”
Then there was General Glenn Goddard, whose name was used to scam a 68-year-old woman out of $55,000. At present, General Goddard is Commanding General of the 353rd Civil Affairs Command. He’s married as well with a daughter and currently resides in Arlington, Virginia.
The most preferred alias was that of General Scott Berrier. At the moment, Berrier serves as the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and like Goddard and McConville, he is also married with children. That was unfortunate news for the 81-year-old widow who sent $90,000 to help “General Barrier” smuggle diamonds, gold and gemstones out of Syria. It wasn’t great for the 57-year-old widow from South Dakota who sent him $5,000 either, or for the 66-year-old divorcee in North Carolina who chipped in $30,000.
So while this was certainly a new wrinkle to the romance scams that have become commonplace in recent years, it also traded upon one of the oldest tropes in the book — the woman who can’t resist a man in uniform.