Imagine this: One day, you are in the middle of running errands and a friend calls you and asks “When did you join OkCupid, Match, or eHarmony?” (Requests for comment on this article to eHarmony, Match and OkCupid were unreturned.) You are caught off-guard because you have not joined any online dating sites.
Your friend swears there is an online dating profile with a picture of you, but a different first name. You quickly search on your smartphone, and much to your surprise, the profile is a picture of you in uniform with your arm around a little girl. You remember taking this picture, but you were with your nephew and not this little girl in the picture.
Someone found a picture of you, altered it, and created a profile on an online dating site. Fast forward to a few months later, when you start receiving phone calls and mail from people who allege that you scammed them, owe them money, and broke their hearts. But you weren’t involved in any of these interactions — you do not even know who they are. You are a victim too.
Searching the phrase “online dating scam and military” returns multiple threads posted on popular dating sites and various blogs about men and women being scammed by “Officers and the Enlisted.” However, most Veterans are unaware that someone is using their pictures without permission.
Over the last few years, there has been an increased prevalence of online dating scams perpetrated by various teams of criminals who establish fake profiles using real images of U.S. military personnel. And with 15 percent of Americans embarking on the adventure of online dating, according to a report by the Pew Research Center, 15% of American Adults Have Used Online Dating Sites or Mobile Dating Apps, this forum provides criminals with easy access to personal information to determine their next victim. Could you be a victim of an online dating scam?
How does this scam work…?
Criminals scour the Internet and social media searching for pictures of in-uniform Veterans — some are found online through image searches and others are taken from social networking sites, like Facebook. Then they establish fake profiles at various online dating sites and social networking sites. Sometimes, it’s just the Veteran’s picture; other times, they use a variation of the Veteran’s name — such as the same last name but different first name. They establish an online presence at various locations to bolster the “reality” of the tale they weave for their targets.
This is not a quick moving scam. Once engaged with another individual through online dating sites, the criminals work to build trust and establish a relationship with their victims, according to a report by the Federal Trade Commission, Faking it — scammers’ tricks to steal your heart and money. In many cases, the relationship lasts months or even over a year before the victim realizes that this is a scam.
The criminals posing as a military member state they are overseas or slated to deploy and subsequently run into a host of challenges from not having access to communications channels, financial accounts, or a way home. They may also claim to be a part of a highly classified mission or a member of the military’s elite Special Forces. Other characteristics of the “Veterans” persona and story may include that leave from the military is denied or they need help requesting leave; they do not have any family, or if so, there are extensive medical needs; they do not have a mailing address; they do not have a military email address; they do not have access to their pay from an overseas vacation; or, they are on a peacekeeping mission.
Requests for money then begin after a bond has been formed and there is an established level of trust.
When the request for money occurs, sometimes it’s for paying to secure an account for a communications link so the romantic relationship can continue. Other times, the victim is asked to coordinate with a third person — the “lawyer,” “financial advisor,” “close friend” — regarding the transfer of money to the criminal to support paying for flights home or medical expenses.
Each time the “Veteran” is supposed to be on his or her way home, something happens to deter arrival. Once the criminals believe they have squeezed as much money out of the victims as they can, the criminals may break contact slowly or abruptly and their online presence disappears.
How can I protect myself from becoming a victim?
While most of the criminals target individuals with no military knowledge or association, there are some whose tactics and storylines are sophisticated enough that Veterans are scammed into believing they are in relationships with other members of the military. Our community is at double risk by either being the target to be scammed or by having a Veteran’s likeness used to execute the scam.
There are steps you can take to better protect yourself from falling for such a scam or having your image appropriated, as recommended by fellow victims, as well as the criminal investigative commands in each service branch, such as the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, in its report, Online Romance Scam Information:
- Establish strong privacy controls on social media accounts, restricting who is able to see your content or request connections.
- Do not post information related to your service in the military on social media accounts.
- Research your own online presence to see what personal information is available to adversaries.
- Do a reverse image search to see where your pictures are appearing.
- Do a reverse image search on the criminal’s profile picture to see where and how else it is being used.
- Research people that you form relationships with through the Internet.
- Ask for personal information, such as mailing addresses and emails, from their military account.
- Do not send money or property under any circumstances.
What should I do if I am a victim?
If you suspect you are a victim of an online dating scam — either as the Veteran whose image is being used or if you believe you are interacting online with a criminal — take action immediately.
Contact local law enforcement and your military branch’s criminal investigations command, particularly if someone is using your photos and any other personal information to conduct the scam, or if you send money or property. Maintain documentation of correspondence with the criminals and turn it over to local law enforcement.
Cease communications and file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission at http://www.ftc.gov/idtheft and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx.
Report the user profile to the online dating website. Each dating site has its own established process for reporting other users — some have a report function directly from the user profile and others have an email address to send reports. Users can find the correct method by searching on the dating site for how to report users.
Monitor your financial accounts closely and place a fraud alert with one of the three main credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian or TransUnion.
Know that hundreds of complaints related to online dating scams involving Veterans are being reported every month — you are not alone. Find local support groups and share your story so that others may become more aware of how to recognize the signs of this online dating scam.
Edited by Amy L. Rose, Ph.D., PMP, Program Analyst, Identity Safety Service, Office of Privacy and Records Management, Office of Quality, Performance and Oversight, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.