A female probation officer and her partner have admitted to conning men out of more than £200,000 in a series of romance frauds on Gaydar and Match.com – with one victim shelling out at least £100,000 over a staggering 14 years.
Racquel Johnston, 42, and Fredrick Diji, 37, changed their pleas to ‘guilty’ at Guildford Crown Court after hearing evidence against them.
Diji admitted conspiracy to defraud, concealing criminal property and possession of an identity document for improper means, while Johnston admitted a charge of concealing criminal property.
Before the change of plea, prosecutors had told the jury how the pair were able to steal Alan Baldwin’s identity after messaging him on the dating websites and conned others using his name and his bank account.
The frauds, involving huge sums of money, began in 2005 and continued up until the pair were arrested on April 29, 2021.
Racquel Johnston (pictured front), 42, and Fredrick Diji, 37, were able to steal Alan Baldwin’s identity after messaging him on the dating websites and conned others using his name and his bank account
Prosecutor Charlotte Hole told the jury that among the couple’s victims were Alan Baldwin, Martin Duffield, Kevin Perkins, Paul Greenway and James King. Pictured: Racquel Johnston
They were also told how the couple knew they had to be careful because Johnston’s probation officer role meant she was working with the police and the courts.
They brazenly cashed in on the use of dating websites and on one occasion, posing as a man called ‘Fred Williams’, said he had been kidnapped and needed one million pounds to be freed.
Prosecutor Charlotte Hole told the jury that among the couple’s victims were Alan Baldwin, Martin Duffield, Kevin Perkins, Paul Greenway and James King.
Diji and Johnston, both from Lambeth, South London, sat beside each other in the dock as Ms Hole told how their scam worked, even detailing their own instructions to others on how to reel in victims.
Ms Hole said the pair’s modus operandi was to ask for money to help them with cash needed to release a fake ‘large inheritance’ on the basis that it would be paid back later.
‘These scams were all designed to manipulate the victims and ultimately extract large sums of money from them.
‘It is the prosecution’s case that Mr Diji and others were perpetuating fraud of this nature since 2005, beginning with a man named Alan Baldwin.’
Ms Hole said that Diji had been defrauding Mr Baldwin since the beginning of 2005 by pretending to be a romantic partner by the name of ‘Fred Williams’ after meeting on dating site Gaydar.
She told the jury: ‘To start with, Alan Baldwin would send “Fred Williams” small sums of money to buy drinks. ‘
The court heard that eventually ‘Fred Williams’ told Mr Baldwin that his father had died and left him as the sole beneficiary of the estate.
Mr Baldwin told investigators later that he was led to believe the estate consisted of ‘money in Sweden, Ireland and the UK’ as well as ‘houses in Manchester and the rest of the UK’.
The romance fraud story was told to a jury at Guildford Crown Court (above) on the first day of Johnston and Diji’s trial for conspiracy to defraud, making or supplying articles for use in fraud and possession of articles for use in fraud
Ms Hole, in her opening speech to the jury, continued: ‘There came a point where Mr Baldwin was sending £1,500 a month to Mr Williams. But that wasn’t enough. He pressured Mr Baldwin to raise it to £2,000.’
The victim described the reason he was asked to send the funds as ‘money to pay for the costs of probate and legal fees.’
‘Over the lifetime of that fraud, Alan Baldwin paid over the amount of £100,000,’ said the prosecutor.
In evidence to the jury, Mr Baldwin said: ‘When eventually I had been told that the probate costs had been paid, another bill cropped up.
‘At one point, I was told by “Fred” that he had been kidnapped by relatives and needed to sign over £1million in order to keep him safe.’
The court was told that this was the most lengthy known fraud in the case, lasting for around 14 years.
Continuing her opening speech, Ms Hole added: ‘In the summer of 2019, a man called Paul Greenway signed up to the dating site Match.com and, after a while, Mr Greenway received a “like” on his website profile.
The man was named as ‘Alan Baldwin’ which Ms Hole said was really Diji and Johnston taking further advantage of Mr Baldwin by stealing his identity.
‘The fake Alan Baldwin claimed he lived in Bolton and that he worked in a care home,’ said the prosecutor.
‘The fake Alan Baldwin mentioned that his mother was unwell in Sweden and that he had to visit her.
‘He later told Mr Greenway that the costs incurred from the Swedish visit left him suffering under onerous overdraft fees.’
Ms Hole went on: ‘Mr Greenway was persuaded to part with £4,950 to help “Mr Baldwin” dodge his overdraft.’
Another complainant, Martin Duffield, reportedly was scammed by Diji and Johnston posing as a ‘Luke James’ during the pandemic, adding that he was shielding due to a lung condition.
In similar circumstances to the other victims, Mr Duffield said he met ‘Luke James’ on a dating website.
Ms Hole went on: ‘Mr Duffield was particularly vulnerable to this in early 2020. This was because he was isolated due to his shielding in the early stage of the Covid pandemic.
‘As with the others, they chatted and then moved their conversation to emails. “Luke James” produced some photos which he claimed were of him and his friend Alan Baldwin. Again a relationship developed.
‘It started with £200 and the bank account details he provided this time were those of the genuine Alan Baldwin.’
The court heard that by the end of October of 2020, the same formula emerged again.
Ms Hole told the jury that ‘Luke James’ had attempted to get Mr Duffield to send him £50,000 to release an inheritance after the death of his mother.
‘He sent photographs and documents but Mr Duffield smelled a rat and decided to run the photos through a reverse image search and that’s how he found out the photos belonged to someone else’s Instagram account,’ said the prosecutor.
‘However, the demands only increased. By December 2020, Mr Duffield was asked for £50,000 to release the inheritance.’
During the investigation, police contacted Match.com to inquire about the details of the account.
Ms Hole told the jury: ‘Police conducted inquiries with Match.com which looked at the subscription linked to the account.
‘The payment for that subscription came from the Monzo account of Racquel Johnston.
‘It is clear that not only was Mr Diji engaged in fraud but Ms Johnston was was also well-aware and was actively engaged in it.’
Another reported victim was James King, who was said by the prosecution to have been taken advantage of while vulnerable.
Ms Hole told the court: ‘He had lost his mother on Christmas Day. He was unable to work because he was a carer for his sick aunt who has dementia and is disabled.
‘The fraudster claimed Mr King would receive £500,000. He this time asked for £20,000. Mr King was living on a carer’s allowance at the time.
‘Mr King was persuaded to part with a sum of £1,700 between February and April 2021.’
The prosecutor said that Johnston was, at the time, a probation officer. She said that a final alleged victim, Kevin Perkins, was the only one to be contacted by someone claiming to be a female.
‘The person who made contact purported to be a “Julia Scott”. She claimed to be living in America and said she was supporting her grandmother and her daughter.’
The prosecutor said that the user of a BlackBerry mobile phone which was found in Diji and Johnston’s property contained instructions to another scammer on how to defraud people using dating apps.
Ms Hole read the message to the court. It said: ‘You have to send love messages for two or three days. You then say that your mum is ill and that she has collapsed.
‘Say that she had cancer of the lung and that she died and you need money for the burial and then say that you are going to receive a large inheritance.’
The mobile phone was seized when a search warrant was executed by specialist police officers at the couple’s house.
Ms Hole said: ‘The officers who attended seized some mobile phones, a laptop and some USB drives. When the police examined these devices, one thing became very clear: the BlackBerry device had undoubtedly been used in romance frauds.
‘The BlackBerry also contained some documents undoubtedly used in fraud – a false Swedish death certificate and a false probate document.’
The prosecutor said that the search of the defendants’ personal mobile phones showed the involvement of Ms Johnston in the frauds.
Ms Hole went on: ‘By July 31, 2020, it appears that Ms Johnston herself was using the BlackBerry as she messaged Mr Diji to ask him for the PIN.
‘What seems to be sent from the BlackBerry were draft messages.’
The user of the BlackBerry, which the prosecution claims was Diji, was also said to have discussed taking precautions around the fraud after receiving a letter from West Midlands Police’s Economic Crime Unit.
He also spoke about the need to protect a woman (Johnson) for she worked with the police and the courts.
Concluding her opening speech, Ms Hole said: ‘It is not only clear that Mr Diji was engaged in fraud but that Ms Johnston was also only well-aware of why would she need her own cover story but was actively engaged in it.’
Following the sudden plea change, Diji was remanded in custody and Johnston was granted bail.
They will have to return and appear before Judge Robert Fraser for sentencing at a later date.