En español | If you have fallen for a U.S. Army “captain” through an online dating site, be warned: That officer may be no gentleman.
Hundreds of times a day, women here and overseas complain about being scammed by con artists posing as U.S. service members, according to the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command.
“We literally get hundreds of phone calls, daily, worldwide,” spokesman Chris Grey says.
Grey has made it a personal crusade to warn the public about the online scams that are using men in uniform as bait to reel in women who hand over cash in the name of love.
Most of the victims are women in the U.S., ranging in age from late 30s to late 70s, Grey says, and some are highly educated.
Typically a swindle starts with a scam artist stealing a service member’s name and photos from various sites online, and it advances to requesting money from the fake love interest for some phony, dire need.
Grey, 60, a retired Marine master sergeant, says he’s heard from victims who have lost $80,000 to $90,000 to such scams and even taken out a second mortgage to foot the bills for an impostor feigning love.
The largest loss he’s seen involved a woman taken for about $450,000.
“It’s heartbreaking listening to these stories,” he says.
The 2,600-person command Grey serves is in Quantico, Va., and it investigates felonies in which Army personnel are victims or perpetrators. Thus it lacks jurisdiction to probe the barrage of incoming calls, since the service personnel are not victimized beyond having their names and photos misappropriated.
Still, what Grey likens to a game of whack-a-mole has become a priority for him as he battles the problem through public education and media outreach. His agency warns online daters about what the Criminal Investigation Command calls a “growing epidemic.”
“It’s hard to put an exact number on it,” Grey says, “but it’s a booming business.”
According to Grey, there’s an easy step to avoid getting swept off your feet by a military impostor: If you’re on a dating site or app with someone claiming to wear this country’s uniform, ask to be sent an email from his or her military account. It will end not in .com or .org, but in .mil. “Privates to generals all have such emails,” Grey says.
As bad actors try to take advantage of women around the world — Grey says he has heard from victims in Great Britain, Japan, Australia and Canada — they’ll usually try to get around the email check by concocting another phony story, he says.
“The criminals will say, ‘I can’t — I’m on a top-secret mission,’ or ‘I don’t have a computer,’ ” according to Grey. “They’ll make up every excuse they can.”
As an infantryman who later became a combat correspondent and served in the first Gulf War, Grey knows better.
“Military members are taken care of in a military zone,” he says. “They have access to mail. If they’re not on patrol or in a firefight, they have access to cybercafes, Skype, and can communicate with their family.”
Grey has been battling military-romance scams for about six years. “I’ve been cussed out several times,” he says, describing calls from women who have “waited at the airport for someone who never showed up.”
Sometimes those who call the command are relatives alarmed by an online entanglement involving their mother or sister.
Cybercrooks also fabricate official-looking “military” documents to further their scams, typically seeking money or financial or personal information from the scam victim, Grey says.
Suspect you or a loved one is being scammed? Call AARP's Fraud Watch Helpline
A hopeful trend: In the beginning, callers insisted: “Hey, I’ve been scammed by a U.S. military person and I want my money back,” Grey says.
But since the government went on offense to alert people here, at U.S. embassies abroad and in the international press, the tenor of the calls has changed, he says. “We see a lot of people coming to us now saying, ‘Hey, have I been scammed?’ or ‘Do you think this is part of a scam?’ ”
Some tips from the command to avoid being scammed:
- Do not send money. Be suspicious if asked for money or a wire transfer to pay for a purported service member’s transportation, medical bills, communication fees or marriage-processing charges.
- Be suspicious if the person with whom you are corresponding wants you to mail anything to an African country.
- Talk to a real service member about suspect claims for cash. Many assertions about the supposed lack of support and services given U.S. troops overseas “are far from reality,” according to a command advisory.
Outside the armed forces, misdeeds surrounding bogus military romances irritate Atlanta cybersecurity expert Lawrence Baldwin, chief intelligence officer for myNetWatchman.com.
He says hotspots for online romance scammers include Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. “They often portray themselves as who is on the ground in Nigeria,” using the ruse about being a U.S. soldier to have money sent there.
Today, in fact, the U.S. Defense Department has only a small contingent of personnel in Nigeria: fewer than 50 military and civilian employees and contractors, says Samantha Reho, a spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command.