WASHINGTON -- In today's digital age, when most individuals communicate regularly with family and friends over social media platforms, one should always be aware that online predators and scammers are lurking on those same platforms, actively stalking their next unsuspecting victims.
Now that the holidays are over and Valentine's Day is fast approaching, Special Agents with the Army Criminal Investigation Command, also known as CID, are anticipating a different type of holiday frenzy -- an increase in "romance scam" reports.
The scam involves an online scammer tricking a victim into believing he or she is "in a relationship" with an American Soldier and then hustling the victim out of his or her money.
"These perpetrators are definitely not American Soldiers, but they are quite familiar with American culture," said Chris Grey, Army CID spokesperson. "The criminals, often from other countries, most notably from West African countries, are pretending to be U.S. Soldiers serving in a combat zone or other overseas locations."
According to Grey, perpetrators take on the online persona of a U.S. Soldier, marry the persona with photographs of a Soldier off the Internet, and then begin prowling the web for victims. The Soldier's rank and other details are often included in an effort to lend credence to the scammer's story.
The Army reports that several senior officers and enlisted Soldiers throughout the Army have had their identities stolen and used in these scams.
To date, Army CID has received no reports indicating a Soldier has been criminally involved or suffered financial loss as a result of these attacks. But victims of these scams have reported losing thousands of dollars. One victim went so far as to refinance her house to help out her new online beau. In the end, she lost more than $70,000.
According to romancescam.org, the scammers set up fake social media accounts and dating site profiles with pictures suggesting that they are from the U.S. The scammers then portray themselves as caring and loving individuals looking for a soul mate.
Once the victim is on the hook, the scammer attempts to persuade the victim to provide financial support to deal with a crisis or send money on some other pretext.
Scammers will communicate carefully worded romantic requests for money to purchase computers, international telephones, or pay transportation fees -- always to be used by the fictitious "deployed Soldier" so the relationship can continue.
They ask the victim to send money, often thousands of dollars at a time, to a third party address. Grey said he gets calls every week from victims of these kinds of scams.
"It is very troubling to hear these stories over and over again of people who have sent thousands of dollars to someone they have never met," Grey said. "We cannot stress enough that people need to stop sending money to persons they meet on the Internet [who] claim to be in the U.S. military."
In addition to the romance scams, CID has received complaints from citizens worldwide who have been the victims of other types of scams in which cyber-crooks impersonated U.S. service members.
In one version, the scammer poses as a service member who is moving overseas and must quickly sell his or her vehicle. After providing bogus information about the vehicle, the scammer requests the buyer make a wire transfer to a third party to complete the purchase. Once the wire transfer is done, the scammer leaves the buyer high and dry, with no vehicle.
"Another critical issue," Grey said, "is we don't want victims walking away and thinking that a U.S. Soldier has ripped them off, when in fact that Soldier is honorably serving his or her country and often not even aware that his pictures or identity have been stolen."
TIPS FOR IDENTIFYING, DEALING WITH ONLINE SCAMMERS
-- Don't ever send money! Be extremely suspicious if you are asked for money for transportation costs, communication fees or marriage processing and medical fees.
-- If you do start an online relationship with someone claiming to be a service member, check the person out. Research the details of the person's story with someone who would know, such as a current or former service member.
-- Be suspicious if the person claims he cannot speak to you on the phone or communicate with you through letters in the mail. Service members serving overseas will often have an APO or FPO mailing address. Whether or not they have access to the internet, service members always appreciate a letter in the mail.
-- A member of the military member will have an email address ending in ".mil." If the person you are speaking with cannot sent you at least one email from a ".mil" email address, then there is a high probability the person is not in the military.
The U.S. has already established numerous task force organizations to deal with these kinds of scams and other issues. Unfortunately, law enforcement's ability to identify these perpetrators is limited.
The criminals who perpetrate these scams use untraceable email addresses on Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc., routing accounts through numerous locations around the world, and using pay-per-hour Internet cyber cafes, which often times maintain no accountability of use. So it is up to individuals to stay on the alert and exercise caution to protect themselves.
If you suspect that you may be a victim, contact the authorities as soon as possible and immediately cease all correspondence with the suspected scammer.
WHERE TO GO FOR HELP
-- Report the theft to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) (FBI-NW3C Partnership). Online: http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx
-- Report the theft to the Federal Trade Commission. Your report will assist law enforcement officials across the United States in their investigations. Online: http://www.ftc.gov/idtheft
By phone: 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338) or TTY, 1-866-653-4261
By mail: Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580
-- Report the fraud to the Federal Trade Commission on Nigerian Scams. Email: email@example.com