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A Holocaust survivor fell for a woman online. Then he lost $2.8 million, feds say.

5 min

When the Holocaust survivor started chatting with a woman he met on a dating website, the 87-year-old fell hard for her and was flattered by the attention he was getting from someone more than half a century younger.

Then, Peaches Stergo had a favor to ask of the Manhattan man: Could she borrow some money? The Florida woman claimed that she needed to pay her attorney, who she said was refusing to release funds from an injury settlement, according to an indictment unsealed Wednesday in Manhattan federal court.

It was the beginning of a four-year run of lies to defraud the man of his life savings, forcing him to give up his apartment, prosecutors say. Prosecutors say Stergo pressured the Holocaust survivor to pay her more than $2.8 million — money that she spent on “a life of fancy trips, Rolex watches and luxury watches.”

Stergo was arrested in the years-long “romance scam,” the Justice Department announced Wednesday. The 36-year-old from Champions Gate, Fla., is charged with one count of wire fraud, according to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement that Stergo “forged documents and impersonated a bank employee” to gain a life of luxury paid for by the Holocaust survivor’s savings account.

“Stergo deceived an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor, maliciously draining his life savings so she could become a millionaire through fraud,” Williams said.

If convicted, Stergo faces up to 20 years in prison.

It’s unclear whether Stergo has an attorney. Messages left on a cellphone number and email address listed for her were not immediately returned Thursday. The Holocaust survivor has not been publicly identified.

The case is the latest example of people getting defrauded out of money through a romance scam. Last February, the FBI said about 24,000 people in the United States had lost a total of $1 billion in romance scams in 2021. A romance scam usually occurs when someone adopts a fake online identity to gain another person’s affection and trust, according to the FBI. Then the person uses the illusion of a romantic or close relationship to steal from the victim.

Stergo and the octogenarian started chatting on a dating website about six years ago, according to the indictment. In early 2017, Stergo, who also goes by “Alice,” allegedly told the man she had settled a lawsuit involving injuries she suffered in a car accident but that her attorney would not release the funds “until he received a certain amount of money.” After Stergo asked to borrow money to pay the lawyer, the man wrote her a check for $25,000 in May 2017, the indictment says.

When the check was deposited, Stergo told the man that the funds for the settlement had been deposited into her TD Bank account. There was one problem, according to prosecutors: Bank records show that Stergo never received any money from an injury settlement.

It would not be the last time the Holocaust survivor gave money to his online dating companion — far from it. Between May 2017 and October 2021, Stergo “repeatedly lied to the Victim to induce him to send money,” prosecutors allege, adding that during that time the Manhattan man wrote almost monthly checks to Stergo in increments of $50,000,

“After each check was deposited, Stergo told the Victim that her bank needed more money, otherwise the accounts would be frozen, and the Victim would never be paid back,” the indictment says. “The Victim continued to write checks because he was afraid he would never see his money again.”

To perpetuate the fraud, prosecutors say, Stergo created a fake email account, impersonated a TD Bank employee and used the bogus email account to repeatedly assure the man that he would eventually be repaid if he continued to deposit money into Stergo’s TD Bank account.

“Stergo created fake letters from a TD Bank employee, which falsely claimed her account had a hold which would only be lifted if many tens of thousands of dollars were deposited into her account,” prosecutors say. “Stergo also created fake invoices for the Victim to provide to his bank after the bank began questioning the large and repeated transfers of money to Stergo.”

A TD spokesman declined to comment.

More than four years later, the Holocaust survivor had written 62 checks to Stergo, according to the Justice Department. Stergo used the nearly $3 million to buy “a home in a gated community, a condominium, a boat, and numerous cars, including a Corvette and a Suburban,” the indictment alleged.

“During the course of the fraud, Stergo also took expensive trips, staying at places like the Ritz Carlton, and spent many tens of thousands of dollars on expensive meals, gold coins and bars, jewelry, Rolex watches, and designer clothing from stores like Tiffany, Ralph Lauren, Neiman Marcus, Louis Vuitton and Hermes,” prosecutors allege.

Then, around October 2021, the man confided in his son that he had given his life savings to Stergo based on the repeated assurances that he’d be paid back. When the man’s son told him he had been scammed, the man stopped writing checks to Stergo, the indictment says.

“The Victim lost his life savings and was forced to give up his apartment,” according to prosecutors.

In announcing Wednesday’s arrest, FBI Assistant Director Michael J. Driscoll emphasized that the bureau was “determined to get justice for victims of fraud and to ensure that scammers face justice for their actions.”

“Today we allege the defendant callously preyed on a senior citizen simply seeking companionship, defrauding him of his life savings,” Driscoll said.