HOUSTON - A woman is now out of $100,000 dollars after an alleged online romance with a Bruno Mars impersonator. Two Houston-area suspects were charged with third degree felony money laundering in this case.
The suspects appeared in court this week, accused of accepting a $10,000 check and a $90,000 dollar check from a woman who thought she was sending that "24k Magic" to Bruno Mars, the popular singer.
37-year-old Chinwendu Azuonwu appeared in court Wednesday after prosecutors say he deposited a $90,000 cashiers check to his bank account in September of 2018.
Investigators say that money was linked to a prolific con artist, likely overseas, who pretended to be Grammy-award winning artist, Bruno Mars, on Instagram.
Court documents say the scammer developed a romantic, online relationship with a Fort Worth woman in her 60s and convinced her to fork over $100,000 to help with his tour expenses.
"The two people that are arrested right now, they received the money on this scam. The way the hackers monetize their crimes, they will recruit people to open up bank accounts. The people that are actually doing the hacking, they’re the people that we really want to get, but they’re the hardest to get," said Keith Houston, a prosecutor with cyber-crimes at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
Houston said hackers can spend up to six months grooming their victims, often targeting vulnerable, elderly women.
"Older women that are recently widowed, unexpected widows, people that are lonely. Older people tend to be more trusting; different time way before the Internet," Houston said.
Basil Chidiadi Amadi also appeared in court earlier this week, charged with depositing $10,000.
However, Azuonwu’s attorney, Maverick Ray, claims his client has no connection to Amadi and instead, says his client has maintained his innocence from day one.
"He has no idea who that person is. He did not know who Bruno Mars was when I was going through the probable cause with him," Ray said.
Ray said his client is originally from Nigeria and has been living in the U.S. for 16 years. He says his client has a clean record and makes an honest living as a ride-share and delivery driver.
Ray said his client’s actions are also standard in Nigerian culture.
"It’s not unlike them to receive a large amount of money and then wire it back home. A lot of them come here obviously to get better jobs, make better pay and then will wire or send money back to their families in Nigeria to help them out," Ray said.
Ray claims his client received the money from a trusted friend and did not suspect anything of its origins or large amount.
"His friend said hey this is my money. Here are my cashier checks. He deposited those thinking that he was going to help him buy a car," Ray said.
Prosecutors say if that’s true, that could make Azuonwu guilty of another crime.
"If that's what he’s saying, he committed a different felony, which is a violation of the money services act. That's basically where you’re acting as a banker without a license. If you’re just doing that for a friend, that’s a third degree felony," Houston said.
Both suspects have bonded out.
As part of Azuonwu's bond conditions, he had to surrender his Nigerian passport. He's also not allowed to have drugs, alcohol, or firearms, and is banned from contacting the alleged victim.
The next court date is set for April.