Internet scammers impersonate soldiers to prey on lonely hearts
Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend administered an oath of enlistment to a Fort Bragg paratrooper from the back of an airborne C-17 in February last year.
Townsend re-enlisted the soldier with a parachute on his back. Then they jumped, taking part in a regular airborne operation on Fort Bragg.
That same day, the commander of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg oversaw a public celebration on post honoring several civilian leaders as "Good Neighbors."
Both events were documented on Army sites and in The Fayetteville Observer.
But not everyone believed Townsend was at Fort Bragg that day.
The general's identity had been used as part of an all-too-common scam that uses the images of soldiers to prey on people through the Internet.
At least one woman, who first contacted the Observer in February 2016, believed that Townsend was stranded on the other side of the world.
U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, or CID, fields thousands of calls each year related to the impersonation of soldiers, often through so-called romance scams.
Officials said the frequency of the scams spikes during the build-up to Valentine's Day.
According to the woman who fell victim to the person posing as Townsend, the general was stranded in Syria.
"I've been writing emails and texts to a person who says he (sic) General Stephen J Townsend. I really need to hear from him it's very important," the woman said in a series of emails to the Observer. "I really have feelings for him and have fallen in love."
The woman explained how the person claiming to be Townsend had asked for money to get home. She agreed, sending money three times to Australia and once to Canada.
"He says he can't trust no one but me," she said. "But now I'm afraid something is very wrong."
The person posing as Townsend claimed he was being scammed by the Islamic State, which was intercepting the money before he could get to it. The person asked for an address to send a package for safekeeping.
"I believe I have been stupid," the woman wrote. "I've been scammed I'm sure."
Townsend is now deployed with other members of the 18th Airborne Corps. He's leading the military effort to defeat the Islamic State through the Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve.
He is not the only general whose likeness is being used to prey on well-meaning and trusting individuals.
Last week, a woman contacted the Observer because her 76-year-old aunt was communicating with someone claiming to be Gen. John W. Nicholson, commander of the Resolute Support mission and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, and a former commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.
According to the woman, the person posing as Nicholson had professed his love for the aunt and pledged to marry her.
The scam artist told the aunt that the Army no longer pays for troops to return home from Afghanistan. Instead, he suggested the aunt send large amounts of money overseas so he could ship himself and his belongings home.
The woman was confident her aunt was being fooled.
"So far, I don't think she has sent any funds," she said. "However, she still believes it is 'the real one' that is calling her and texting daily."
Another woman, a veteran, contacted the Observer last week to share that she had met a man on Facebook who used the image of Maj. Gen. Paul J. LaCamera, deputy commanding general of the 18th Airborne Corps and acting senior commander of Fort Bragg.
"I am prior military and this really chaps my butt," the woman said.
Chris Grey, a CID spokesman, said the scams are difficult to prosecute because they often involve criminals based outside the United States.
"The perpetrators will often take on the online persona of a U.S. soldier, who is honorably serving his country somewhere in the world or has previously served and been honorably discharged, then marry that up with some photographs of a soldier off the Internet, and then build a false identity to begin prowling the web for victims," Grey said. "The soldier's rank and other military details are often included in an effort to give credence to the scammer's tale."
Many times those fooled by the scam are civilians, which means the scams are nearly always outside the jurisdiction of CID, he said.
"These perpetrators are definitely not American soldiers, but they're quite familiar with American culture," he said. "The criminals, often from other countries, most notably from West African countries, are pretending to be U.S. soldiers routinely serving in a combat zone or other overseas location."
No soldier is immune to having his likeness or name attached to the scam, Grey said. Scammers have used military photos of senior Army leaders to regular Joes, he said.
"There's millions of them out there," he said of the images, which are often used to make fake social media accounts.
CID works to get those accounts shut down, Grey said. They also notify soldiers whose identifies may have been stolen as part of the scam. Grey said there is no evidence that soldiers have been criminally involved or suffered financial loss as a result of the scams.
On Fort Bragg, deleting the fake accounts is a constant game of whack-a-mole.
Paul Boyce, a spokesman for U.S. Army Forces Command, said officials come across several fake social media accounts each week. They have used images of Gen. Robert B. Abrams, the commanding general, and other senior Forces Command leaders.
The Army encourages civilians to engage with soldiers, Boyce said. But people should be cautious and ask questions if something seems suspicious, he said.
Regular communication with social media websites to remove fake profiles has become standard practice for most Army units, Boyce said.
At the 18th Airborne Corps, officials said they are proactive, searching for new profiles on Facebook and other sites.
"It's in our battle rhythm to look at least once a week," said Maj. Ellis Gales, a spokesman for the command.
Even then it can be difficult to keep pace with the faux accounts. A search of Facebook last week revealed no fewer than 10 profiles for LaCamera.
Boyce said true social media profiles for Army leaders often have been verified by the websites.
He and Gales said potential victims should be wary of claims that a soldier is stranded overseas or needs money wired to return home because of an emergency.
"There is a system for getting a soldier back home," Gales said.
Another sign that something is amiss is if the "soldier" in question uses a commercial email address.
Grey, the CID spokesman, said many romance scams could be thwarted if the victim were to ask for an email from the faux soldier's official email. An official email would end in .mil.
The scams often take several forms. Some take the shape of phishing expeditions - bulk emails sent with promises of a fortune found overseas and the caveat of a small loan to help the faux soldiers return home.
Others use fake documents of varying levels of credibility. They may be official-looking forms with seals from the Department of Defense or the United Nations. Some documents claim to be from Army units. Many of them contain errors that would be easily spotted by those familiar with the Army.
Often, the scams that make the biggest impact tug at the heartstrings, with weeks or months or more invested in developing a relationship that some believe is true love.
The scammers convince their victims they are soulmates, officials said, drawing them in with carefully worded romantic requests before finding an excuse to ask for financial support.
"I get calls every week and 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. "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."
In years' past, Grey said hundreds of victims would report the crimes to CID.
Some gave thousands of dollars.
"One victim went so far as to refinance her house to help out her new beau, in the end she lost more than $70,000," he said.
Grey said the calls have increased in recent years. Mostly, the callers are reporting the scam and have not fallen victim to them.
Grey credits that to a push by CID, the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission to warn the public about the scams.
"We don't want people walking away thinking a soldier did that to them," Grey said.
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