A sextortion ring that aimed “catfish” efforts at U.S. military service members has been uncovered. The scam bilked 442 service members from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps out of more than $560,000.
An 11-month investigation, dubbed “Operation Surprise Party” and carried out by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and other military criminal investigative organizations, found that South Carolina inmates and their outside civilian associates identified and targeted members of the military via social media forums and online dating websites. Then, posing as attractive females, they exchanged pictures and lured service members into online romances. From there, the trap was sprung.
“After the service member responded, prisoners would then assume a role of the female’s father, who claimed the female was a juvenile,” NCIS explained in an online notice posted last week. “Prisoners would also assume the role of a police officer or someone in a position of authority, demanding money, on behalf of the family, in exchange for not pursuing charges through law enforcement channels.”
It added, “Military members would then pay, fearful they might lose their careers over possessing what they were being led to believe was child pornography.”
The investigation has culminated with arrest warrants and summonses for hundreds on charges of money laundering, extortion and wire fraud. However, this enforcement action is only in its first phase. NCIS said that there are more than 250 additional people who are being investigated and face potential future prosecution.
“This despicable targeting of our brave service members will never be tolerated,” said Director Andrew Traver of NCIS, in a media statement. “This operation will continue until we break the back of these criminal networks.”
Daniel Andrews, director of the Computer Crime Investigative Unit of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, added: “With nothing more than smart phones and a few keystrokes, South Carolina inmates along with outside accomplices victimized hundreds of people.”
Catfishing the military isn’t a completely new idea – and in fact, it’s a favorite gambit for terrorist groups. In January 2017 for instance, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) detailed an espionage campaign by Hamas operatives, who used faux personae posing as beautiful women to trick IDF soldiers into installing eavesdropping apps on their phones.
The soldiers were targeted by Facebook friend requests purporting to be from attractive women. To sweeten the pot, these “ladies” sent multiple messages expressing their interest, along with photos—though the photos were cribbed from other, legitimate Facebook profiles.
After chatting enough to convince the soldier that she’s real, the person on the other end asks the soldier to video chat via mobile. But the app doesn’t work, so the perpetrators attempted to convince the soldiers to download a “special application.” This turned out, of course, to be spyware, capable of listening to phone conversations and more, sending them directly to Hamas.
A similar effort emerged this summer, with Hamas using fake dating applications to deliver spyware. After building up a rapport with the soldier on WhatsApp, the “woman” in question then sends them a link to download one of several convincing-looking dating apps, with names like GlanceLove and Golden Cup.