WASHINGTON — More than 400 service members from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps lost more than half a million dollars after being victimized in “sextortion” schemes run in large part by inmates in South Carolina, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
Agents from four military criminal investigative organizations have arrested five people, executed arrest warrants and served summonses as the first phase of “Operation Surprise Party,” an investigation launched in January 2017 based on victims’ reports, according to statements from Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) spokesperson Jeff Houston and information in a news release.
“This despicable targeting of our brave service members will never be tolerated,” NCIS Director Andrew Travers said in the release sent to Pentagon reporters. “We will not allow criminal networks to degrade the readiness of our military force.”
Houston told TMN that none of those arrested or none of the suspects are in the military; “the service members identified in this investigation are the victims.”
According to NCIS, inmates throughout South Carolina and their civilian partners identified and targeted military service members through social media forums and online dating websites.
“The prisoners, using fictitious online personas, preyed on service members to engage in online romantic relationships and then extort the service members for money,” NCIS said in the release. “Inmates used various social media platforms and dating sites posing as a female, exchanging pictures with service members.
After the service member responded, prisoners then would assume a role of the female’s father, who claimed the female was a juvenile.
“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,” NCIS said. “Military members would then pay, fearful they might lose their careers over possessing what they were being led to believe was child pornography.”
Contraband cellphones were used in the operation, officials said.
The NCIS release said 442 service members from across the United States were victims, losing more than $560,000.
Travers praised the help and cooperation of other agencies. “We were able to complete this first phase because of the excellent work by all our law enforcement partners, who are dedicated to helping protect our military service members,” he said in the release.
The NCIS is joined in the effort by the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, Army Criminal Investigation Command and Air Force Office of Special Investigations. They received assistance from several civilian agencies, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Marshals Service, Department of Energy, South Carolina and North Carolina local agencies, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the South Carolina Department of Corrections, the Pentagon said.
More than 250 additional people are being investigated in the schemes and face potential prosecution, the NCIS release said.
“This operation will continue until we break the back of these criminal networks,” Travers said in the release.