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A man posing as Bruno Mars allegedly conned $100,000 from a Texas woman convinced she was dating the Grammy-winning pop star.
Chinwendu Azuonwu, 38, is accused of masquerading as the “Uptown Funk” singer on social media to cheat a 63-year-old woman out of tens of thousands of dollars. The pair allegedly met on Instagram in 2018, according to charging documents obtained by Oxygen.com, after the woman joined social media to connect and find "companionship." Over the course of several weeks, she and the man she believed was Mars communicated frequently on the social media app and via Google Hangouts.
The 63-year-old, who has not been publicly named, was under the impression she was in a “meaningful relationship” with the famous entertainer, investigators said. Azuonwu allegedly sent her numerous texts and photos maintaining that he was actually Mars, and claiming he was on tour.
“During their communications, she fell in love with the individual identifying himself as Bruno Mars and that he promised that he was quitting his current tour and wanted to be with her,” charging documents state.
Azuonwu later begged the woman for cash to cover “tour expenses,” according to investigators. On Sept. 12, 2020, she went to a bank in North Richland Hills, drew a cashier’s cheque for $10,000, and deposited it into a Chase bank account she was told belonged to a “friend of the band.”
Two days later, Azuonwu asked for an additional $90,000. Once more, the woman obliged, fulfilling the steep request, which this time was deposited into an account with the name “Chi Autos.”
Bank records revealed Azuonwu was running a “money laundering operation” and that the funds the Texas woman deposited had been withdrawn. Azuonwu admitted to being the sole person on the bank account which had received the $90,000 deposit. When questioned by detectives, he couldn’t explain how or why the funds landed in his account.
Azuonwu was arrested and charged with money laundering. He appeared in Harris County court on Feb. 10 and was released after posting a $30,000 bond.
Azuonwu’s attorney, Maverick Ray, denied his client had posed as Bruno Mars.
“Mr. Azuonwu is maintaining his innocence and has not been identified or been alleged to be the actual ‘Bruno Mars' perpetrator,” Ray told Oxygen.com.
Ray claimed his client was victimized by a “criminal organization” that concocted and carried out the Bruno Mars romance scam, unbeknownst to him.
“There is a larger criminal organization that is behind the original set up and collection of money from the woman. At this time we nor the prosecution know who the true masterminds behind the scam are,” he said.
Ray then explained that the cashier’s check deposited into Azuonwu’s account came from a “longtime” friend who did not have a bank account, but intended to buy a car and send cash to family in Nigeria.
“Mr. Azuonwu ended up with the cashier check and simply cashed it into his bank account, which he has had for several years and his normal day job proceeds were also in there,” Ray said. “He uses the account to pay your everyday expenses such as rent, food, groceries. Mr. Azuonwu did not know the money was obtained fraudulently and the cashier check in question was made out to his friend, who he has known for a very long time.”
Basil Chidiadi Amadi, 28, was also charged with money laundering in the romance scam, separate charging documents show. Investigators identified Amadi as the alleged owner of the bank account which received the first $10,000 check from the 63-year-old victim.
Azuonwu is originally from Nigeria, according to his lawyer, and has lived in the U.S. for 16 years. He’s scheduled back in court on April 29 at 10 a.m.
In 2017, Azuonwu was also charged with a misdemeanor offense of displaying a fictitious license plate, according to additional court records. The case was ultimately dismissed. He doesn't appear to have a past criminal record.
Every year, online predators swindle millions of dollars from tens of thousands of Americans through online romance scams, according to the FBI. Scams involving celebrities are particularly prevalent.
“We see a lot of celebrity scams every day,” Holly Clark, a Minnesota-based romance scam victim advocate, told Oxygen.com.
Clark said she’s worked with dozens of victims who’ve been “brainwashed” into believing they were in online relationships with a number of Hollywood icons and billionaires, including Mark Zuckerberg, Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr., Clint Eastwood, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and others.
“The list goes on and on,” Clark said. “They want to believe that somebody so amazing would want them."
Such celebrity romance scammers employ specialized psychological techniques and “sales pitch” scripts to dupe victims. Some victims live in denial for years, Clark said.
“These scammers have psychologists on their payroll,” she explained. “It goes deep, very deep. Our victims come to us after they’ve lost money….many of these scams have created divorces, split families, and family heartbreak."
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