In 2013, my boss's wife got an email. It went something like this:
Dearest *** ******,
You husband told me not to write to you, but I decided I must. It is unfortunate what will happen to you, and I feel I have to say something to you in advance. ****** and I are in love, and he is going to leave you to be with me. He has kept the affair from you a secret, and he has kept it a secret from the other people in the military, but it will come out soon. Please be strong, and know that I do not wish you any ill will.
Remarkably cordial for an "I am about to destroy your family" notice.
At this point, I had been an Army officer for about 10 years. My boss was a general, and I was his speechwriter. His wife forwarded this email to my account, so it fell on me to confront him with the news.
"Oh, god," he said. "Not again."
This is something Army folk go through all the time. No, not having affairs and getting ratted out to their wives -- they're actually being impersonated by scammers who use their fake identities to seduce unsuspecting women.
The scammers (from Africa, chiefly Ghana) start by snagging real troops' photos and personal information. When you're an army officer -- especially a high-ranking one -- this info is all public, even more so than with normal people who simply share too much online. The scammer uses this info to make a fake Facebook profile, and then they add various old, single women as friends.
Most of you started unconsciously looking for the "flag profile" button just now, but not those five "friends."
You, dear reader, are Internet savvy. You're here. The best place on the internet. It's obvious. So when you get a Facebook request from someone who has a Chippendale dancer avatar and a grand total of five friends, you know it's a fake. Perhaps some of the older women these scammers target are as savvy as you are. But others aren't and simply think that a uniformed stranger wants to be their friend.
The scammers also create fake email addresses and multiple Skype profiles:
At some point, you have to wonder if it might have been less time consuming to just enlist.
And then, after countless late nights texting sweet nothings to one another, they ask the woman to send money to Ghana.
What is an American Army officer doing in Ghana? Army stuff, of course! And what does he need money for? Body armor, rations, stuff to keep him alive -- you're always hearing about people in the military dying from a lack of good gear, right? So send your secret boyfriend money via Western Union. You can't meet him in person because he's currently deployed, but you can help keep him alive. And if you ever want to see him in person, well, then it's all the more important that you send him that money. Plus, maybe one day he can purchase a leave form and take you on a romantic honeymoon.
Purchasable leave forms? I-is that a thing? You don't know that's not a thing.
... And there's absolutely no way you could possibly find out that information, either.
In Ghana, the scammer collects the money using some hastily made, janky fake ID ... which doesn't have his actual picture on it, but Western Union people don't care.
"Meh, close enough," isn't exactly something you want to hear from someone who handles other people's money all day.
In the case of Suzy, who was thoughtful enough to contact the general's wife, it fell on me to explain to her that she'd been fooled. She wrote back to her online boyfriend, saying she'd talked to the military and now knew he was not who he said he was. His reply:
I know that I have hurt you for what I've done and I am asking for your forgiveness and hoping that we could start all over again. I really cherish those moments when everything was going great, and you're so cool. I could hardly take the reality of losing you. I really want you back my Love.
Here is my true identity I'm Army Captain ****** this is the fourth-highest in command in that branch of the armed services. The rank is designated as O-9 on the military pay scale, which means a salary of nearly $45,000 a month. A Captain general sports a row of one stars as an insignia on his or her shoulder. Typically, this rank is not achieved before 20 years in the service.
U.S. Dept. of Defense
Everyone knows that going into the minutia of pay grade and rank insignia is at the core of any modern relationship.
The reason for my foolish act is because General ****** has been my role modern and i truly want to be like him, And i wish that have not change the Love you have for me, Because i know true love is what i feel for you, I know what my heart feel for you, I don't know you because i saw you from your picture, I love you because my heart feel and beats for you my Love, Please don't use this medium as an evidence to judge me, because I pretend to be General ******
Like i said I'm Captain ******. I will send you a picture of myself along with this mail for you to judge me on your own point of view.
Yes. He had a reserve identity all ready. I didn't know whether to be impressed by his resourcefulness or baffled at his belief that he could still salvage this with a backup personality. With this last email, the scammer also attached personal pictures of himself to prove that he really, definitely was this army captain -- this time for-realsies.
Somehow, this convinced her. Yes, again. Chat log from before:
Scammer: Okay honey since you know and said i am not ****** why then did you come to me for chat? then just forget about me because i am tired of this whole thing okay.
Suzy: then saw it was you, where we went to eat? because I want you, not him, but I want to know you're there
Scammer: Honey you don't want me okay,if you want me you will not being doing all this rubbish.
Suzy: I had too many doubts and wanted to understand.... But I have talked with you, I read your letters, your face does not interest me, nor medals. I have loved you, not him, he is another person. he is not like you, do not tell me what you tell me.... you be able to understand me? I want to know your age, if you're married, and where are you?
Scammer: I am not married
Suzy: if you are a man, or a woman?
Scammer: Okay promise you will love me and stay with me.
Suzy: promised if you are not a kid.
Scammer: even if i am a kid promise you gonna stay with me and love since you said you love me.
Suzy: if you're 20 years old I can be your mom
Scammer: what if i am 25yrs old? well i want you to promise me and since you say you love me you don't need to know my age,you will keep on loving me and caring for me so promise me and then lets discuss.
Suzy: I do not want to suffer for love, if you are so young, in a few years you leave me for another woman
Scammer: Okay so you don't love me and lets forget about it. well i am not a young boy okay
And, after, he sent these pics of "himself":
Scammer: Now that you saw me do you still love ,e Me?
Scammer: Thank you so much, Because i can't live without you in my life I'm so happy now
Suzy: now I rest, Because the hospital made me care and I have to rest until tomorrow
Scammer: So you believe in me now?
Scammer: Okay Honey get some rest not we talk tomorrow we you feel much better.
Suzy: Tomorrow morning I Moving my office the move, maybe I can get online but in that place there is no line even for mobile phone
Scammer: Okay honey please take good care of yourself for me and remember that i love you so much. Kisses and love always,bye for now :*(heart)
Suzy: I love you too.... A little tip, it deletes all ****** there are too many ******
If you couldn't make it through the entire transcript, it's like if you could somehow read a car crash.
I spoke with Suzy on the phone and convinced her that this was still a ridiculous scam. A little later, the general sent me an email that said, "Steve: Fix my Wikipedia page." I went to Wikipedia and saw this:
Sure; it's in no way suspicious that "Marital Status" is the first section listed for a general.
The page is supposed to say that the general is married, and include his wife's name, but the scammers erased her from the internet's most trusted information source. I reverted the edit and added "monitor the general's Wikipedia page" to my list of duties. Later still, a scammer edited the page to say the general's wife and children had all died in a fire. I overwrote that as well. It generally falls to me to be the point man on this battle, because I'm the young guy in the department -- it's the "grandma on Thanksgiving" rule. I'm technologically adept, and that means I have to "volunteer."
I have a colleague at the Pentagon (another younger "Thanksgiving volunteer") who fields calls from these scammed women. When she answers, the women usually cut the conversation short. I asked her why this was.
"It's pretty easy to guess," she said. "It's the same reason they fall for these scams in the first place. These are old, lonely women who got lost in the fantasy of talking to mysterious, sexy military men. So when they think something's gone wrong, they call the Pentagon -- because scammed or not, they still want to talk to mysterious, sexy military men."
"You mean ...?"
"Yep. Some women keep 'falling' for this scheme, in the same way some women 'accidentally' set their house on fire just to have firemen show up at their house."
Consider this, from Suzy's chat logs:
Scammer: Hello honey are you there? Hello honey are you there?
Suzy: I'm here
Scammer: Honey how are you?
Suzy: I was in Texas U.S. Army *****
Scammer: Oh okay so what happened?
Suzy: I met Major ****** and ******
Scammer: Okay so? what are you now saying?
Suzy: Now what do you say?
Scammer: What do you want me to say? What did ****** told you?
Suzy: I ate with him and talked with an interpreter
She lives in Italy -- she never came to Texas to speak with me, or anyone.
Of course, maybe that's okay in a "to catch a thief" sort of way. But then you get the women who ask us for money. They call, and at first it seems like they're simply informing us about this scam that they were victim to -- but then they claim to really be dating one of our men, and further claim to be entitled to some kind of compensation.
The fact that you can't identify a scam does not double as an invoice.
And no, these weren't more Ghanaians posing as American women. These are American women, and some of them legitimately think they can trick us into giving them money. Others get it in their heads that they're actually helping the US military track down an international crime ring and feel very important doing so. Of the ones demanding money from us, some insist they met their fake boyfriends in person. Some might be mentally ill. One of these backed up her claim with a Photoshopped image:
"We're so close we're joined at the hip! Well, at the shoulder at least."
It's nothing more than sad, honestly ... until they name-drop me in conversations with the scammers. Because that's how I got on the scammers' list of eligible bachelors. Now, every so often, I find that I'm the one on the fake Facebook profile luring in old women. And I'm the one fielding calls about me. One of these scam victims called the Pentagon, and I intervened. Here's the unofficial message I sent the scammer:
I am the LAST person you want to impersonate. I've become very adept at deleting these accounts. You can probably turn a better profit impersonating someone else. You can expect this account to be deleted within 24 hours, and you will have to build your entire network again.
I am well aware that you reside in ******, Ghana, or somewhere nearby. Please note that the United States has absolutely no difficultly drone striking people in all corners of Africa. You may want to reconsider impersonating US military personal.
I know you have an obligation to pay your boss. But please, you can probably find some other way to turn a profit.
That was the last I heard from that guy.
And boy, do these women love to fall for Fake Me. It doesn't help that I happen to share a name with the brooding love interest in a Harlequin romance novel. Every few months, I'll get a Facebook message from some random woman informing me that she fell in love with one of my fake scam profiles.
It does not work out.
For more looks into the world of ripping people off, check out I'm Not Really Royalty: The World Of Nigerian Internet Scams and 6 Stupid Crowdfunding Scams That Should Have Been Obvious.
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