The U.S. has the most robust and powerful military in the world, and though its fighting men and women can win wars, they often appear defenseless against popular online scams.
“[In] the military you have a young population on the web. They get caught up on these Internet scams, specifically targeted to them,” said Holly Petraeus, director of the Better Business Bureau’s military line and the wife of Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Service members are targeted by websites that claim to offer special military discounts on everything from cars to apartments for rent. But the low-priced car never arrives and the easy-to-find apartment they've rented is already occupied.
Similarly, scammers are profiting off of U.S. civilians under the same guise of patriotism, Christopher Grey, spokesman for the U.S. Army criminal investigators, said. In the past year there has been a surge of criminals posing as military members on online dating sites, forming relationships with women and ultimately asking for money.
Scammers prey on the victims’ “kindness, patriotism and (sometimes) romance,” which compromises the good name of the military, Grey explained.
“It’s especially despicable it’s directed at our service members at a time they’ve been risking their lives for us overseas for several years,” Petraeus said. “To have somebody pick their pocket here at home is completely unacceptable.”
Unacceptable ... but often un-prosecutable.
“The majority of these scam artists come from African countries ... from Ghana, Nigeria,” Grey explained. They set up a scam, work in a cyber café, and then move.”
“They can take their website down and open up another one the next day.” Petraeus said.
When the U.S Army Criminal Investigators Office becomes aware of an online military scam, they have to hand the case over to the country where the crime is committed, Grey said.
“It’s very difficult to track these people down so we feel prevention is the cure.”
Following are some of the most common military Internet scams, according to Grey and Petraeus:
Online Dating Scams: These are the latest and most popular to hit the web. Scammers, usually out of Ghana or Nigeria steal identities of real soldiers on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace and pose as military members. Others create identities off of British military members. After posting pictures and stories to popular dating sites, the scammers contact women. “They [build] up a huge story about who they are, they are heroes and serving the country,” Grey said. “People fall for the ploy, and some people are sending them money.” Scammers ask for everything from laptop computers to money for airfare so they can fly back to the U.S. and visit the victims, most of whom are women. “They are very poetic, they are very savvy,” Grey said. “Luring these women in and they take them for their money.” Victims have been cheated out of up to $23,000. Grey cited one case where a woman took out a second mortgage on her home to finance her romantic interest overseas.
Protest Scams: Not every online military scam is created for financial gain. Some scammers are contacting the families of military members by phone or email and making false claims that their son or daughter is injured or wounded overseas. Grey says they sometimes ask for money for medical bills, but usually they are only contacting the family to scare them as an anti-war protest.
Craigslist Car Scam: Scammers are taking to Craigslist, offering too-good-to-be-true discounts on cars for military personnel. In some cases, the scammers claim they are military members about to be deployed and need to sell a vehicle fast. Similarly, others offer military members a special discount for serving their country. More disturbingly, the scammers are offering low-priced vehicles because a U.S. military member who died in combat owned the vehicle and the family wants to get rid of it fast. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) says scams like these usually require a wire transfer and promise free shipping. The description of the cars is lifted from auto sites, and typically you can Google the vehicle ID number, to determine whether it’s a real deal or a hoax.
Military Loan Scams: Military members who have less than perfect credit are becoming victims of flashy offers that typically promise "up to 40% of your monthly take home pay," "same day cash," "no credit check," "all ranks approved." But these offers often up with sky-high interest rates that do more harm than good for military members. The BBB says that this scam involves the entire family of military members, so it can do years of damage to their financial security.
Terrorist Capture Scam: Some scammers claim to be military members fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan and who are faced with a tough decision -- they have either gained access to Saddam Hussein’s secret fortune or have captured Usama bin Laden, and need your help. This scam preys on U.S. civilians who are looking to fight justice and maybe earn a little money in the process. Scammers say they have come across millions of dollars of Hussein’s secret fortune but need a monetary advance in order to gain access to the money, and will give you a dividend when the cash is obtained. The BBB says that even though Saddam is dead, people are apt to believe that his wealth is still circulating somewhere out there. Other scammers claim they have captured bid Laden but need money to transport him, so that they can turn him over to authorities.
Housing Scams: Due to the nature of military service, those who serve and their families are forced to move from base to base around the country. Though the military often provides housing, some members are responsible for finding their own living arrangements, which scammers are fully aware of. Scammers go to Craigslist to target areas where they know military members will need housing. They lift the descriptions of legitimate rental properties and rewrite the post so it offers a special discount for military members. Depicting a too-good-to-be-true offer, they ask for a security deposit to be wired in advance to ensure their occupancy. But often, the individual or family arrives at the rental property only to find it already occupied.
The BBB outlines several tips to protect yourself from becoming a victim of military scams:
-- Always research a company with the BBB before you hand over any money or personal information.
-- Be sure keep your computer protected by installing updated anti-virus software.
-- Observe the golden rule of avoiding scams: if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
If you have found yourself a victim of a scam, you can file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission or the FBI at www.ic3.gov.