A federal grand jury has alleged that a 69-year-old Rush City, Minn., woman helped carry out a global fraud scheme that duped victims around the country through romance fraud schemes and also targeted pandemic aid programs.
Gayle Joyce Ferngren was indicted Tuesday on four counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering in a scheme that prosecutors alleged started in 2016. She is accused of pocketing at least $1.8 million in fraud funds during that time while transferring most of the proceeds to co-conspirators in as far-flung locales as Egypt and South Africa.
Ferngren could not be reached for comment nor had an attorney listed as representing her. Her first court appearance in the case is scheduled for Jan. 4. Ferngren is the only conspirator charged in the case so far, and others are not referred to by name in the indictment.
According to the indictment, the scheme found its most lucrative source of fraud money through making false claims to multiple states' unemployment insurance programs and the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
In Minnesota, Ferngren allegedly received at least 68 preloaded debit cards with more than $1.3 million in unemployment insurance benefits from state programs in California and Nevada.
The indictment alleges that, between May 2020 and February, Ferngren and another co-conspirator bought more than $900,000 in Bitcoin at cryptocurrency ATMs in Minnesota using cash from the fraudulent cards that had been mailed to Ferngren. Ferngren and a co-conspirator later transferred more than $336,000 to combined cryptocurrency accounts controlled by at least two others overseas.
Ferngren is accused of using the preloaded debit cards to withdraw more than $680,000 in cash via 719 separate ATM cash withdrawals between June 2020 and October 2020. She also allegedly made purchases of nearly $3,000 at nearby Walmarts using the cards.
The indictment against Ferngren spells out how romance scams also provided a source of income during the conspiracy. In one example from March, Ferngren deposited checks for $95,900 and $97,500, respectively, that were both sent by a victim from Colorado under the direction of one of Ferngren's co-conspirators. In such cases, scammers may assume false identities to lure people on dating websites or social media into sending them money.
The scheme also allegedly misappropriated victims' personal information and funds. In April, Ferngren received a check for $150,000 that purported to be drawn against a home equity line of credit in the names of two Boca Raton, Fla., residents without their knowledge or approval.
The indictment said that Edina law enforcement warned Ferngren about her suspicious banking activities in April 2020. The next year, it added, the Minnesota Commerce Fraud Bureau notified her that she "may have engaged in fraudulent activity," including "romance scams." In both cases, the indictment said, Ferngren warned her co-conspirators rather than put a stop to the scheme.