A Florida woman who confessed to engaging in a romance scam and draining almost $3 million from the life savings of an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor has been sentenced to four years in prison. In federal court in Manhattan on Thursday (August 1, 2023), 36-year-old Peaches Stergo received her sentence after pleading guilty to wire fraud in April 2023, per The Guardian. The arrest took place in January 2023, when she was charged with stealing $2.8 million from the elderly man who fell victim to an extended deception that came to an end in 2021.
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During that year, the elderly victim was among approximately 24,000 individuals who collectively lost over $1 billion to romance scammers operating with false identities online, preying on vulnerable individuals seeking companionship through dating websites.
How the scam unfolded
In 2017, the victim encountered Stergo on one of the dating websites. She convinced him that she needed funds to cover legal expenses tied to an injury settlement, which, as it turns out, did not actually exist, according to prosecutors. From her residence in Champions Gate, Florida, Stergo skillfully manipulated the victim into providing more funds, claiming that she needed the money to gain access to a bank account from which she would repay him. Deceiving the victim even further, she posed as a bank employee and forged documents and emails to assure him of repayment.
The victim lost not only his life savings but also his apartment while Stergo indulged herself in luxury, purchasing a home in a gated community, a condominium, a boat, multiple high-end cars, and Rolex watches. Lavish vacations and extravagant items from renowned designers were also part of her extravagant spending.
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Even more disturbingly, Stergo ridiculed her victim in text messages sent to her actual partner, mocking the man for expressing love towards her while condescendingly dismissing him as “broke.”
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The scam is revealed
The scam finally unraveled when the victim disclosed to his son in October 2021 that he had lent out his life savings. The son quickly realized the fraudulent nature of the situation and alerted his father who subsequently stopped writing checks and contacted the authorities. Stergo was eventually tracked down and brought to justice.
The reason behind the scam
According to Stergo’s attorney, Ann Fitz, she deemed the four-year and three-month sentence as appropriate for her client, per NBC News. Before the sentencing, Fitz submitted documents detailing Stergo’s troubled childhood marked by instability and trauma, which contributed to her developing compulsive behaviors such as drinking, gambling, and engaging in the scam to which she confessed. Prosecutors presented incriminating texts from Stergo, indicating that she conducted the scam out of frustration over her financial situation and a reluctance to seek lawful employment. “I don’t want to work,” she stated in one text. “It’s too hard.”
Legal proceedings and further disclosures
Judge Edgardo Ramos, presiding over the case, also mandated that Stergo forfeit her home and all the luxury items she obtained through the fraudulent scheme. NBC revealed that the victim, whose identity remains undisclosed, had written a letter to Ramos. In the letter, the victim recounted his journey to the United States during his 20s, fleeing the tragedy of losing his parents in the Holocaust. He expressed, “I tirelessly built a successful business, a loving family, and a home in New York…The last thing I anticipated was to end my life in the same destitute and betrayed manner as I began it.” Prosecutors cited this letter while requesting an eight-year sentence for the perpetrator. However, Stergo was finally sentenced to four years of imprisonment.
Despite the slight decline in the rate of romance scams over the last year, the FBI continues to emphasize the importance of vigilance for online users, particularly highlighting the vulnerability of older individuals to such scams.
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