Alleged 'sweepstakes' scammer ordered extradited to U.S. to face fraud trial

TORONTO — A man accused of spearheading a scam operation that cost Americans hundreds of thousands of dollars lost his bid on Tuesday to stave off extradition to the United States.

In upholding an earlier ruling, the Ontario Court of Appeal rejected arguments from Harry Cole that his identity as the man wanted on fraud and money-laundering charges was not proven.

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Superior Court Justice Nancy Spies had ordered Cole extradited to face trial in the U.S. in June 2019. Cole, who is known by other names including Akintomide Ayoola Bolu and John King, argued on appeal that Spies was wrong in finding American authorities had established he was the person in question.

The problem, the Appeal Court noted, was that Cole's own lawyer conceded more than once during the extradition hearing before Spies that identity was not an issue.

"Even if counsel had not conceded the point on behalf of the appellant, there would be no reason to interfere with the extradition judge's finding," the Appeal Court said.

Cole also questioned the evidence against him provided by the Americans, but the Appeal Court again found no errors with Spies' judgment. It noted three people intimately involved in the operation of the alleged scam had pointed the finger at the accused.

Among other things, the witnesses said they had met Cole, repeatedly taken instructions from him, and regarded him as the "prime mover" in the fraud that allegedly operated from 2012 and 2016.

"There is no reason to describe the identification evidence given by the three witnesses in this case as manifestly unreliable," the Appeal Court said. "They were describing a person whom they had met at a meeting for the purpose of joining and participating in the fraudulent scheme."

According to the American indictment, Cole and others would send letters to older victims indicating they had won millions of dollars in a sweepstakes or lottery. The letter included a bogus cheque for about US$8,000.

The letter instructed targets to deposit the cheque in a personal bank account, immediately withdraw thousands of dollars in cash or money orders, and send the money to a "sweepstakes representative" in the U.S. to collect on their prize. By the time the cheque bounced, the alleged scam artists would have received the cash or money order and would then send the ill-gotten gains to Canada or Nigeria.

A second alleged scam involved more than 1,000 phoney tax-refund claims using stolen identification information.

Documents filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, Austin Division allege Cole acquired and distributed lists of potential victims, distributed scam letters and fraudulent cheques, and created a company in Canada to receive proceeds from the scheme.

"The hundreds of identified victims sustained more than US$900,000 in actual losses, and, if the scheme had been successful every time, the losses for all of the intended victims would have been in excess of US$250 million," according to the filed charges.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 7, 2020.

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