The Army says "very senior officers" and enlisted soldiers have had their identities stolen by criminals, who then use those identities to scam civilian women out of thousands of dollars.
The "Romance Scam" has left a trail of victims around the world in its wake: women between the ages of 30 and 55 years old who believe they are in a romantic relationship with a U.S. soldier.
“We cannot stress enough that people need to stop sending money to persons they meet on the internet and claim to be in the U.S. military,” Chris Grey, the Army Criminal Investigation Command spokesman, said in a statement.
The scam usually follows a distinct pattern, authorities say. The con artist gets a hold of a soldier's name, rank and/or photograph as a jumping off point. Those are used to build up a fake identity, then the "soldier" begins prowling dating websites and social media for victims. The "soldier" usually tells the women he meets that he's serving in a combat zone, and initiates a relationship.
Once the crook has the victim's trust, he starts asking her for money. The crook reportedly will tell his "girlfriend" that he needs the money for laptops, international telephone access and other things in order for their relationship to continue. Some of the victims reported sending as much as $75,000 over the course of a year.
“The criminals are preying on the emotions and patriotism of their victims,” Grey said.
The Army says that beyond having their names and photographs taken, no soldier has been victimized by the scam. But a number of civilian women have been put out thousands of dollars.
“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 and sometimes have never even spoken to on the phone,” Grey said.
The Army says that they have also been receiving complaints about a second scam involving con artists posing as soldiers trying to sell vehicles. The "seller" asks the buyer to wire money to a third party address to complete the purchase. The crook walks away with thousands of dollars; the victim is left down of thousands of dollars and without the promised vehicle.
The Army says they are working to deal with these scams, but that the con artists are "good at what they do," and are often untraceable online.
"The ability of law enforcement to identify these perpetrators is very limited, so individuals must stay on the alert and be personally responsible to protect themselves," the CID said in a statement.
Army criminal investigators sent out the following advice to keep from becoming a victim:
• 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.
• Carefully check out the stories you are being told. If it sounds suspicious, there is a reason, it’s routinely false – trust your instincts.
• If you do start an internet-based relationship with someone, check them out, research what they are telling you with someone who would know, such as a current or former service member.
• Be very suspicious if you never get to actually speak with the person on the phone or are told you cannot write or receive letters in the mail. Servicemen and women serving overseas will often have an APO or FPO mailing address. Internet or not, service members always appreciate a letter in the mail.
• Military members have an email address that end in “.mil.” If the person you are speaking with cannot sent you at least one email from a “.mil” (that will be the very last part of the address and nothing after), then there is a high probability they are not in the military.
• Many of the negative claims made about the military and the supposed lack of support and services provided to troops overseas are far from reality – check the facts.
• Be very suspicious if you are asked to send money or ship property to a third party or company. Often times the company exists, but has no idea or is not a part of the scam.
• Be aware of common spelling, grammatical or language errors in the emails.
• Be cognizant of foreign and regional accents that do not match the person’s story.
If you believe you have fallen victim to either scam, report to the following:
Report the theft to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) (FBI-NW3C Partnership).
Report the theft to the Federal Trade Commission. Your report helps law enforcement officials across the United States in their investigations.
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.