By Sharon Stockard
Military service members are being warned about an internet scam — often through a Facebook friend request or a video chat room — that entices people to share explicit photos with a stranger. Once the photos are sent, the scammer threatens to post the photos online or send them to friends or an employer unless the target sends money.
American military personnel are especially vulnerable because many of them are young and away from home for the first time. Plus they work for the U.S. government and their conduct is closely monitored, making them easier targets for “sextortion.”
“The use of the internet and social media has made it easy to target DON personnel,” said Megan Bolduc, NCIS Division Chief, Analytical Support to Operations & Investigations. “The same general approach to luring military service members into an extortion trap has been seen in 12 NCIS field offices that have opened cases and produced criminal intelligence on the topic since August 2012.”
For example, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), which investigates criminal cases for the Navy and the Marine Corps, received 60 reports in 2014. That number doubled in 2016, to more than 120. NCIS, the Army Criminal Investigation Command and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations are in the process of drafting a broader strategy for the Department of Defense to deal with the problem.
The scammers could be based anywhere in the world. The Philippines and Ivory Coast are of particular concern to military officials because that’s where a large number of incidents occur — 70 reports since 2012.
Usually the scam starts with a friend request or an online chat invitation from a stranger — often from someone posing as a woman. The scammer may suggest they share photos or that they move to Skype’s live video interface and undress.
One junior Navy service member who was caught up in a sextortion scam agreed to tell his story on the condition of anonymity. He said the scammer in his case purported to be a woman but he could never be sure because she said her computer microphone was not working.
Investigators say the extortionists often use prerecorded video — sometimes stolen — to lure victims.
The scammer threatened to send the photos to the young sailor’s family and friends unless he paid $150. Law enforcement officials say it’s common to demand a low sum initially and demand larger payments later. The scam won’t stop as long as the target continues to pay. In one case involving military personnel, the sum exceeded $10,000.
Military personnel are cautioned to never identify themselves as members of the military or post photos of themselves in uniform in chat rooms or on social media. That makes them especially vulnerable to being threatened not only with their privacy but with any security clearance they may have. The target may send money to avoid disclosure or risk his job.
While some of the scams start on Facebook through friend requests, some exchanges take place over video chat. The scammer will play a pornographic video of a woman, encouraging the target to join in before revealing that the entire session was recorded.
In the Philippines, law enforcement busted one such criminal ring in 2016, and 50 people in one office were arrested, according to the NCIS. The organization was sophisticated with a payroll and bonuses for employees who extorted the most money. But on the whole, “sextortion” is difficult to prosecute. In the Philippines, for instance, the government requires that a victim file a report in person.
Women are seldom involved in “sextortion” scams, law enforcement officials say.Photos are often stolen from Instagram or another internet source, and the women whose likenesses are used don’t even know their pictures were involved.
Sometimes the photo could even be of a service member in uniform — without her knowledge — making the friend request more acceptable to another member of the military.
Catching and punishing the scammers is difficult, NCIS officials say.
Instead, they are focusing their efforts on prevention, warning military personnel to never send compromising photos on the internet.If they do get caught in a “sextortion” trap, service members are instructed to stop communicating immediately, save all correspondence and report the incident. And to never send money.
Scammers who target military personnel know they have a steady income and that they are held to a higher standard of behavior than most civilians. Threatening to ruin their military career can be terrifying for a young service member. Once any payment is made, the extortion only escalates.