This article by David Leffler originally appeared on Task & Purpose, a digital news and culture publication dedicated to military and veterans issues.
In the summer of 2015, Bryan Denny received a peculiar message in his LinkedIn inbox.
"I really need to speak with you, Bryan," a woman wrote. "I thought you were coming to visit me after your deployment in Syria was completed?"
He didn't recognize the woman's name or picture, had never been to Syria, and had no plans to travel to Canada, where she lived. Recently retired after serving more than two and a half decades in the Army, including deploying as part of Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom, Denny had expected to encounter some uncomfortable situations in his transition to civilian life. This wasn't one of them.
At first, Denny just assumed she'd contacted the wrong guy — a simple case of mistaken identity. But as they exchanged messages, he came to a more troubling realization: for several months, the woman had been in a full-fledged online relationship with a Col. Bryan Denny who, it just so happened, looked just like him.
Whoever she'd been speaking with had gotten hold of his pictures, created a fake profile on a Canadian dating site, and constructed an elaborate, tragedy-filled backstory. The Bryan she knew wasn't married or retired — he was a dashing American soldier whose wife had passed away and whose son had recently suffered a string of severe medical ailments. Over the course of their fleeting online love affair, she'd helped him out with hospital costs, home repairs, and plane tickets home — at a cost of several thousand dollars. Now, she was wondering where the hell he (and her money) had gone.
Denny decided to look himself up on Facebook, since that's where the woman said she'd verified his identity. Nearly 100 accounts with his name and face popped up, each of them displaying his neatly-coiffed gray hair and steady smile. Many included shots of him with his son, while others used images of Denny with his comrades overseas. The majority showed him in uniform during his final months of service.
A lump formed in his throat as he took in one doppelganger after another. "It's hard to capture how confusing and disturbing it is to scroll through an endless stream of profiles bearing your face and name," he reflected in an interview with Task & Purpose. "The first time you see it, you're just blown away."
It turned out Denny's name, his image, and, most important, aspects of his military service had been posted to myriad dating sites and social media platforms, all in an effort to swindle wide-eyed romance-seekers around the world out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Maybe millions.
Although many of the fake accounts used his real name, others took on aliases to better cover their tracks, making it all but impossible to hunt them down. Every passing day brought new calls and messages from desperate women who'd been stripped of their pride as well as their life savings by "Bryan Denny." Some women became so infatuated with him that they simply couldn't cope with the fact that their love had been a sham — hounding him for attention until he eventually had to ignore them entirely. With his reputation and, increasingly, his sanity on the line, Denny knew he had to take action. But he was a man used to battling insurgents in firefights, not nameless, distant hackers.
Anatomy of a romance scam
In the fall of 2012, Notre Dame's All-American linebacker, Manti Te'o, made waves across the country for his unbreaking resolve in the face of adversity. A gifted athlete and the captain of the top defense in college football, Te'o heroically carried his team to an undefeated regular season and the BCS National Championship game after losing his girlfriend, whom he'd dated online for nearly a year, to leukemia. But nine days after Notre Dame's loss in the title game in early 2013, news broke that Te'o's girlfriend wasn't dead. In fact, Deadspin reported, she wasn't real; she was a fictional online persona created by a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Te'o maintained he didn't know the full truth of the twisted ruse until as late as December, but either way, it gained him national prestige and made him the posterboy of college football for one magical season.
Most romance-scam victims aren't so lucky. According to the FBI, these unfortunates — often divorced, widowed, or disabled women over 40 — are being extorted by distant scammers for money and gifts to the tune of some $250 million a year. (Apple products are especially popular.)
The perpetrators often operate within intricate networks; many originate in Nigeria or Ghana, where outreach tactics, compelling backstories, and conversation strategies have been turned into a science. By sticking to a formula and passionately professing their desire for a new life with their targeted victims, the scammers disarm and beguile their prey with razor-sharp precision. Just as important, these illicit organizations have stockpiled pictures and personas to bolster the credibility of their fake accounts and reel in victims with ease.
One of these scammers' most successful ploys involves assuming the identities of lovesick American soldiers stationed abroad. It's easy to see why servicemen have become a particularly fruitful disguise for romance scams: sterling reputations, trustworthy characters, and a built-in excuse for being away.
And yet, military romance scams are vastly underreported. Many victims are typically too embarrassed to admit they sent thousands of dollars — sometimes tens of thousands — to people they've never met. Denny was astonished when he finally put the pieces together and realized what was happening. Opportunistic thieves, located oceans away, saw his service, patriotism and chiseled looks… and saw a perfect piece of man candy to dangle in front of eager female suitors. Denny suddenly saw how the deference, perks, and unadulterated praise soldiers receive in America could be exploited in terrible ways when love is on the table.
A brief history of military imposter scams
In 1906, a German named Wilhelm Voigt, fresh out of prison after serving a lengthy sentence for theft and forgery, stepped into a military surplus store to initiate his greatest scheme yet. Emerging from the shop sporting a captain's uniform, he quickly convinced a group of soldiers to follow him to the nearby town of Köpenick, where under his command, they stormed the mayor's office and helped him loot 4,000 marks. It was only after the soldiers delivered the bewildered mayor, whom they'd been ordered to arrest, to the Berlin police that everyone realized Voigt and the money had gone missing. Though he was eventually apprehended, he became a folk hero, praised for highlighting the blind obedience of his countrymen to authority.
Military imposters have been prolific on our side of the pond, too. As the 100th anniversary of the Civil War approached in the late 1950s, Americans were captivated by a man named Walter Williams, who claimed to be 116 years old and the last living veteran of the conflict. After some digging, researchers later concluded he'd actually been a child when the war's first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. Williams was hardly alone in this act: lying about Civil War service was then a favored tactic of fraudsters looking for prestige and pensions.
Compared to these examples, military romance scams have a distinctly disturbing — and, in many cases, sensual — flavor. Unlike your more run-of-the-mill instances of stolen valor, these schemes involve assuming the identities of specific soldiers to make victims swoon. Instead of constructing entire backstories, scammers typically tailor their characters around their servicemen's traits, sprinkling in little pieces of truth they've gleaned about the men they're pretending to be.
Denny's imposters, for instance, frequently talked about being from North Carolina and visiting his family farm there (both of which are true), sending their targets pictures of him out in the field alongside beautiful horses. It worked: turns out plenty of women were drawn to the idea of a wholesome, sturdy country boy with a love of the outdoors and a sensitive side. As the months passed, he began receiving phone calls from women who, desperate to track him down, had taken to searching for him in his home state. In a few cases, they even got hold of his parents. "I'm actually pretty lucky that I've only got a cell phone," he said. "My folks get it a lot worse, since they've got a landline that's publicly listed and easier to find."
By late 2015, Denny was receiving a weekly barrage of calls and messages from frenzied women. His wife and teenage son were getting contacted. Some of the victims had become so entranced that even after being told they had been duped, they couldn't let go. "I've had to end up blocking a few of them because they just can't sort out what's real and what's not," he said. "It consumes them. There's one particular woman in Germany who, I'm sure, has pictures of me on her fridge and thinks I'm going to visit her someday. It's not funny. It's quite sad."
As a result of such interactions, Denny has become an expert at letting lonelyhearts down easy, writing hundreds of reverse "Dear John" letters to those who've fallen for him. He's also had to learn how to pinpoint and eradicate fake accounts using his information. Since his now years-long search began in December of 2015, he's identified roughly 4,000 bogus Facebook profiles that utilize a mixture of 51 different photos of him. Last fall, he got a meeting with Facebook executives to talk about the problem, but they weren't particularly helpful. "At one point, the senior leader we spoke with just laughed out loud at us," he said. "It was really trite, really condescending, and wreaked of an unprofessional disdain for responsibility and big picture solutions."
Facebook declined to comment on its meetings with Denny for this story, but a representative for the company told Task & Purpose in April that the social network is doing everything it can to ensure the safety of its users. "Staying ahead of those who try to misuse our service is a constant effort, and we work constantly to detect and block harmful activity, including removing accounts," they said. "Our security systems run in the background millions of times per second to help catch threats and remove them before they ever reach you." (Facebook has given the same verbatim statement to media organizations before.)
Denny does credit Facebook for meeting with him several times since to discuss his situation. Unfortunately, even if the company does an about-face and fully commits itself to hunting down the countless fake accounts on its platform, it'll likely still be behind the eight ball for quite some time. "Offenders are truly committed to their targeting of victims, so for every fake profile that is removed or blocked, a new one can be created in its place," said Dr. Cassandra Cross, an expert who has written extensively on the impact these ploys have on romance scam victims. "Anonymity and the transnational nature of offending works in favour of the perpetrators."
Though the odds are against him, Denny has continued to seek out executives at dating websites and social media providers to highlight the issue. During every discussion, he's had to answer an uncomfortable question: Why him? Simple: Potential victims "see a guy who's served his country, has a son, and suddenly lost his wife," he said. "People want to step up and help that guy out. That's the great country we live in, the great environment our military lives within. They never suspect those things could be used for evil."
'I was so naive. My friends were all telling me it was a hoax'
Sharon Hughes, a 65-year-old retired nurse and divorcee who now devotes her time to painting, is quick with a joke and has a jaunty, chipper laugh and a penchant for off-the-wall statements. "People have told me I'm unstable," she told me. "I am unstable; I'm an artist!" Although she hasn't remarried since she and her ex-husband divorced in 2003, she is looking for a life partner. In other words, she's the ideal target for romance scammers.
In 2015, Sharon was looking on Facebook when a "Ross Newton" popped up in the site's "people you may know" section. He was a greying, sharply dressed soldier wearing an officer's uniform, something that appealed to her since she came from a military family. Although she didn't know "Ross," the site's social matchmaking algorithm suggested they connect. Drawn to his good looks, she figured: What the hell? and struck up a conversation. It was a big move for her. "Ross" responded back right away. She was elated.
Within a few months, the two were soon exchanging several messages a day and contemplating starting a life together after he left the Army. Sharon was mesmerized by her boyfriend's daring stories of combat and dedication to his troops, but she also felt bad for him; he'd suffered a terrible string of luck, including losing some of his closest companions in skirmishes. "There was one time when one of his best friends was injured by a grenade," she said. "He described in detail how sad it was, sitting next to him as he died in a hospital bed. He got quite creative."
Sharon's desire to help her ailing soldier overshadowed her concerns about sending him money. After three months together, they were engaged (he'd sent her a picture of the ring he'd bought), and she was hunting for their future home. When she'd finally found her dream house, she was blindsided when the homeowner and realtor both told her she was being conned. "I thought they were being ridiculous," she said. "I told them, 'He's on the internet right now. Let's just send him a message and talk to him!'"
Sharon had a similar experience at the bank when she was encircled by the branch's manager and two tellers, who told refused to honor the wire transfer she was requesting. "It's a scam. Don't do it," they pleaded. She never had a doubt… until her family friend noticed during Thanksgiving dinner that the man's uniform in the pictures actually said "Denny" instead of "Newton."
Ross wasn't real. By then, she'd sent him over $35,000 in cash and electronics.
"I was so naive. My friends were all telling me it was a hoax, but I'd never heard of military romance scams," she said. "I just had Bryan's image and voice in my mind and I wanted to meet him so badly that I just kept wiring the money."
In addition to being ripped off, Sharon lost a number of friends who'd grown fed up with her unyielding trust in her distant fiancé. They had begged her to stop, but she had already invested so much of herself into the relationship. There was no going back. Besides, she couldn't help it — he was a steely-eyed storyteller whose image was unshakeable.
"Bryan's picture is what really kept me going," she said. "I loved Bryan's image, his story, all of it. His identity was just so appealing… real clean-cut, came from a wealthy family, liked nature. I loved the picture of him with his horse."
Sharon's testimony highlights a key factor behind the success of Denny's impersonators: He's a good-looking dude. He's got the middle-aged, early gray look of Harrison Ford in Six Days, Seven Nights or Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia. When you add in the fact that he's a soldier and sprinkle in a couple tragedies, it's easy to see how ladies, under the right circumstances, would fall so hard for ploys bearing his handsome mug.
Another victim, who spoke with Task & Purpose on condition of anonymity, fell for a fake Denny profile under the name "Greg Howes." Like Sharon, she was a woman in her 60s who met her beau on Facebook. A widow to a Vietnam veteran, she maintained a relationship with her grifter for a full year, during which she sent him $40,000 in cash and $20,000 in Apple products. When asked why she stayed with "Greg" for so long — especially after they spoke on the phone and she noticed his strange accent didn't match his Jacksonville, Florida, roots — she said she was too sucked in to step back and admit she'd been duped.
"It's hard to break things off because you've gotten very involved and convinced this is something you need," she said. "It really goes against you when you're sneaking around doing things you usually wouldn't. It feels dirty, wrong — but you feel like you need to."
Although she finally ended things last spring, this victim has yet to tell her family the full story. She likely never will, she admitted — but it's difficult to hide the heavy debt she incurred sending "Greg" money for medical care and improved electronics for his platoon. Despite being a victim herself, she mostly feels sorry for Denny.
"Poor guy, they've really used him to inflict an awful lot of pain," she said. "With everything they sent over, it's clear they've got more than enough firepower to keep this going for a long, long time."
Can the law — or anything else — stop social scams?
A couple of months ago, Denny decided to take a weekend trip with his family to a lakeside getaway near his home in Williamsburg, Virginia. Now a defense consultant in Washington and the president of the Second Cavalry Association (the veteran alumni group for the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, which he commanded in Afghanistan), he's come to cherish these outings, an escape from life's stresses he was never afforded while deployed overseas. Denny especially loves unplugging from the world, to get off the grid and away from all the victims — if only for a moment.
"The emotional pleas from people begging to speak with you and to rekindle the spark they think you had, it gets to you. It really, really does," he said. "It's tough to sit back and watch Americans give away their life savings away to criminals abroad using pictures of me, especially the images with my fallen soldiers."
Denny may be determined, but he's not naive. Beyond trying to raise awareness about a drastically underreported criminal scheme, he's fighting a faceless enemy that the FBI and Army CID say is gaining strength. The people responsible for these crimes are hiding behind keyboards thousands of miles away, protected by a labyrinthine web of fake accounts, stolen identities, and internet back alleys.
With government regulation lagging behind technology's ever-accelerating advancements, and social media companies incapable of aptly handling these matters independently, there appears to be no expert or authority in the field to rely on. Nonetheless, Denny's holding out hope that the FOSTA bill signed into law by President Trump in April, which targets websites hosting ads for online sex trafficking, is a sign of more to come. He's also encouraged by recent conversations he's had with the Army's office of public affairs and the staffs of several legislators, including Republican Rep. Devin Nunes and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California — both of whom declined to comment on this story. Denny will also appear in an upcoming episode of CNN's documentary series, "Inside with Chris Cuomo."
Unfortunately, he suspects he's in a lifelong fight. Equipped with an arsenal of photos bearing his suave grin and a laundry list of sob stories, scammers are primed to cash in on his all-American appearance for years to come. Things may be getting easier for them, too, after Facebook announced on May 1st that it's officially diving into the world of online matchmaking. Their target market? Divorcees and users over 40, Meredith Golden, a New York City-based dating coach, said in a recent MarketWatch story. "There are millions of singles in this demographic who want to meet someone but have reservations about using dating apps," she said. "If they've already been using Facebook and feel comfortable with the format, this will be an easy transition for someone reentering the dating market."
If Golden's right, that places Facebook's core dating niche directly in the crosshairs of romance scammers. And there seems to be no shortage of willing marks.
"I thought the whole thing was funny," Sharon said after confirming she'd never try online dating again. "Not that I lost money, but that there's this African guy pretending he's Bryan and Bryan doesn't know about it and I'm engaged to Bryan — but in the real world I'm not engaged to anybody. They're always good-looking, handsome men with good incomes and wholesome devoted lives and it's all a lie. They're too good to be true."
David Leffler is a contributing writer for Task & Purpose. The son of an American war historian and the grandson of a Vietnam veteran, David's interests range from international politics to homegrown American tech. Follow David Leffler on Twitter @dlef719
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