The Pentagon announced Wednesday that U.S. military agents from multiple criminal investigative organizations have issued arrest warrants and served summonses on a sextortion ring that extorted a half-million dollars from more than 400 service members.
South Carolina inmates, aided by outside civilian associates, identified and targeted service members through social media forums and online dating websites, according to a Nov. 28 Naval Criminal Investigative Service press release.
The prisoners, using fictitious online personas, preyed on service members to engage in online romantic relationships and then extort them for money.
Military members would "pay, fearful they might lose their careers over possessing what they were being led to believe was child pornography," the release states.
"This despicable targeting of our brave service members will never be tolerated," NCIS Director Andrew Traver said in the release. "We will not allow criminal networks to degrade the readiness of our military force."
This is the first phase of Operation Surprise Party, an investigation launched in January 2017 by the NCIS that also included the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, Army Criminal Investigation Command and Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the release states.
"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," Traver said. "This operation will continue until we break the back of these criminal networks."
In total, the online money laundering, extortion and wire fraud schemes cost 442 service members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps from across the United States more than $560,000, according to the release. There are more than 250 additional people who are being investigated and face potential future prosecution.
"With nothing more than smart phones and a few keystrokes, South Carolina inmates, along with outside accomplices, victimized hundreds of people," said Daniel Andrews, director of the Computer Crime Investigative Unit of the Army Criminal Investigation Command.
"This enforcement operation sends a clear message about our unwavering commitment to protect our nation's service members so they can focus on their mission of winning wars and defending the American way of life," he said. "Working with our fellow federal agencies and state partners, we will continue efforts to stamp out sexual extortion impacting our communities."
Sexual extortion is a "global crime" that has evolved as quickly as social media, said Air Force Col. Kirk Stabler, commander of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
"In this case, our partnership with our fellow military law enforcement agencies, South Carolina state law enforcement officials, the U.S. Attorney's Office and other federal agencies brought together key capabilities, which led to this successful joint investigative operation," he added.
Any service members who have identified suspicious activity or are being targeted by sextortion should contact a local NCIS, Army CID or Air Force OSI office, the release states.
"Too many service members from throughout the armed services have fallen victim to this scam, and these actions detract from the readiness and well-being of our warfighters," said Special Agent in Charge Robert Craig Jr. of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service's Mid-Atlantic Field Office. "The Defense Criminal Investigative Service ... stands ready with our military and law enforcement partners to combat criminals who seek to extort or defraud our military service members, dependents, and DoD civilians."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.