You have likely heard of catfishing: a term used to describe a person who creates a false online profile and then lures an individual into a relationship. Those victimized by catfishing are often hit with emotional and financial heartbreak when they learn the truth. However, catfishing techniques are being used for far more sinister purposes: to extort money from individuals using blackmail.
In October 2018, South Carolina’s State newspaper reported on a series of extortion schemes being run by prison inmates housed in South Carolina Correctional Facilities. Inmates used the popular dating website Plenty of Fish to create fake profiles of women and targeted male military members living nearby. Under the guise of a fake dating profile, prisoners sent photographs of nude women to the victims and then revealed that the female was underage, threatening to report them to police for possession of child pornography.
Bait and switch
Soldiers caught in the scheme believed they were chatting with women close to their age. But after receiving nude photos, news that the fake woman was underage was typically delivered by an angry message or phone call from a man pretending to be her father threatening to report them to police. The threat was followed by demands for payment to keep quiet. Despite sending cash, victims faced repeated demands for payment and escalating threats.
Army warns of risk
Due to the volume of these blackmail schemes, the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command’s Computer Crime Investigative Unit issued a fact page to warn their enlisted members of the practice. The Army offers important tips that you can use to protect yourself if you end up in an extortion scheme of this kind:
- Stop all communication immediately.
- Do not send money.
- Talk to a criminal defense attorney experienced in internet crimes.
- Preserve communications by taking a screen shot or by printing out the fake dating profile, including any messages you exchanged and directions on where and how any money was sent.
Due to the risk of extorting military members to obtain sensitive or otherwise classified information, military members should report blackmailing attempts to the Army’s Computer Crime Investigative Unit, DHS Homeland Security Investigations, and/or the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center.