The Pentagon announced on Wednesday that a coordinated criminal investigation across multiple military law enforcement organizations has resulted in a series of arrests tied to a sexual extortion ring that targeted some 442 American service members.
“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.”
The extortion ring was actually spearheaded by five prison inmates in South Carolina, bolstered by ten civilian accomplices that would identify service members to target via social media and online dating websites. Once service members were identified, the prison inmates and their accomplices would engage the service members and claim to be young women that were interested in dating someone in the military. After a bit of conversation, they would send nude photos that they had found online, claiming the pictures were of themselves and asking for nude photos in return.
Once the service member sent nude photos back, the culprits would then call them directly, claiming to be the father of the girl they were speaking to and telling them that the girl was actually under aged. From there, they would demand money in exchange for not outing them to law enforcement or their commands. In total, the operation netted more than $560,000 over the course of at least two years.
“Our purpose in being here today is to sound the alarm that these kinds of scams are a significant threat to our military and to the citizens of South Carolina,” U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Sherri Lydon told the press.
No specific branch was targeted, with victims hailing from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Service members were all aware that they could face a variety of repercussions for exchanging sexually explicit photos with a minor, ranging from civilian criminal charges to potentially facing charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“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.”
Concerns about extorting American service members weren’t the only topic of heated discussion regarding these indictments. Many have begun asking why prisoners have had such easy access to cell phones and the internet, when they are supposed to be banned for inmates.
“We do not lock up criminals only to have them go to prison and continue their criminal conduct,” Lydon said. “It is the unfettered use of contraband cell phones that allows inmates to continue harming citizens.”