‘Sextortion’ by prison inmates cheats soldiers out of nearly $600K, prosecutors say

Some 442 U.S. service men were scammed out of more than half a million dollars by “sextortion” racket allegedly run by inmates from inside jails in South Carolina.

U.S. prosecutors from the Departments of Defense and Justice on Wednesday blew the whistle on one of the most daring such rackets uncovered yet. Prosecutors have indicted 15 people, served five arrest warrants, and say they are investigating another 250 people — many of them outside jail — for involvement in the scam.

“South Carolina inmates, aided by outside civilian associates, identified and targeted military service members through social media forums and online dating websites,” said the National Criminal Investigative Service: “The prisoners, using fictitious online personas, preyed on service members to engage in online romantic relationships and then extort the service members for money.”

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Prisoners allegedly used contraband smartphones from inside the jail to run their scam in the outside world, and succeeded in blackmailing victims for about $1,300 each. For those at the bottom of the military structure, such as privates, that represents a substantial sum. Privates typically earn less than $2,000 a month. The scam targeted members of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.

The scam artists allegedly hunted service men through online dating sites such as plentyoffish.com. (The company did not respond immediately to a request for comment.) First they posed as women, struck up online conversations, and exchanged intimate pictures with their targets. This is a process known colloquially as “catfishing.” Then they posed as the woman’s father, or a police officer, and claimed the “woman” was under the legal age of sexual consent. That’s from 16 to 18, depending on the state. The service men were told to pay up to avoid facing charges for child pornography and related offences.

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In reality those seeking online love — or excitement — weren’t communicating with women of any age. Instead, say prosecutors, they were communicating with five prison inmates. Prosecutors Wednesday said they were convinced the victims of the scam thought they were talking to adult women, and none would be charged.

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Brett Arends is a MarketWatch columnist. Follow him on Twitter @BrettArends.

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