A California woman has been charged with acting as an intermediary in three separate e-mail scams that stole more than $360,000 from three Minnesotans, the state Commerce Department announced Wednesday.

The woman was described by authorities as a “money mule,” defined as someone who receives and transfers stolen money, often electronically, as part of a fraud scheme.

Ling Zhou, 51, of Santa Clara, Calif., made her first court appearance last Friday in Ramsey County District Court and is scheduled to make her next appearance Feb. 15.

“A fraudulent e-mail that victimized a Minnesotan was the starting point for this investigation which uncovered a sophisticated cybercrime scheme,” state Commerce Commissioner Jessica Looman said in news release.

She said that by following the flow of money, the department’s fraud bureau determined that Zhou was laundering stolen money obtained through fraud and forwarding it to overseas accounts.

The Lakeville Police Department was also involved in the investigation with support from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In one of the alleged scams, a Minnesota man was closing on a real estate transaction in which he was the buyer. He received wiring instructions by e-mail from a person who appeared to be employed by the title company involved in closing the real estate transaction. He followed the instructions and wired $205,704 to a Bank of America account.

At the scheduled closing two days later, he learned that the e-mail he received was fraudulent, the Commerce Department said. The title company did not send the e-mail to him, nor did it receive his funds.

In another alleged scam, a Ramsey County resident sent a total of $90,000 to Zhao’s Bank of America account and her Wells Fargo account, believing he was sending the funds to “Teresa Hill,” who told him she was involved in the gem industry and was having trouble in Dubai.

A third alleged victim was a man from Melrose, Minn., who sent multiple deposits totaling $86,000 to a Wells Fargo account controlled by Zhou. The man believed he was sending the money to “Katie Henshaw,” who he met on Craigslist and claimed to be searching for love and a soul mate, the Commerce Department said. “Henshaw” told the victim she had overbought some gemstones as part of her business and owed money to Malaysian customs.

In each scam, Zhou transferred the stolen money to other accounts, including in South Africa.


Twitter: @randyfurst