Citing an online relationship between a Japanese woman and a purported United States Army captain stationed in Syria, the Federal Bureau of Investigations says it has arrested over 70 Nigerians for stealing at least $46 million through fraudulent means.

Through an international social network for digital pen pals, the FBI said the relationship grew into an internet romance of over 10 months of daily email exchanges. 

It ended with the woman becoming $200,000 poorer and on the verge of bankruptcy after borrowing money from her sister, ex-husband and friends to help a certain Capt. Terry Garcia with his plan to smuggle diamonds out of Syria.

In reality however, there were no diamonds and there was no Garcia as he was part of an elaborate scam hatched by an international ring of cyber thieves operating mainly out of Los Angeles and Nigeria.

Announcing an indictment charging 80 people with stealing at least $46 million through various schemes which targeted businesses, the elderly and anyone susceptible to a romance scam on Thursday, US federal authorities said the Japanese woman, known only as FK in court papers was fleeced by the suspects, most of whom are Nigerians.

“We believe this is one of the largest cases of its kind in US history. We are taking a major step to disrupt these criminal networks,” US Attorney, Nick Hanna told a news conference.

Paul Delacourt, the Assistant Director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office said the investigation began in 2016 with a single bank account and one victim and grew to encompass victims who were targeted in the US and around the world.

“FK was and is extremely depressed and angry about these losses. She began crying when discussing the way that these losses have affected her,” the FBI said. 

Her relationship began innocently in March 2016 with an email but soon ‘Garcia’ made romantic overtures, telling her they could not talk by phone because he was not allowed to use one in Syria.

Therefore, a stream of emails were exchanged between the love birds, with FK using Google to translate his English into her Japanese. A month into the relationship, Garcia told her he found a bag of diamonds in Syria and then began introducing her to his associates, starting with a Red Cross representative who told her Garcia had been injured but had given him the box containing the diamonds.

FK ultimately made 35 to 40 payments, receiving as many as 10 to 15 emails a day directing her to send money to accounts in the US, Turkey and the United Kingdom through the captain’s many purported associates.

The FBI said the fraudsters even threatened her with arrest if she did not continue to pay and at one point, she travelled to Los Angeles because she was told a Russian bank manager had embezzled more than $33,000 of her funds.

Authorities arrested 14 defendants Thursday, mostly in the Los Angeles area. They were then processed in a downtown Los Angeles parking lot before they were arraigned in federal court. It was not immediately known if they had attorneys who could speak on their behalf.

All the suspects face charges of conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to launder money and aggravated identity theft. Some of them have also been charged with additional offenses relating to fraud and money laundering.