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Extortionists target Marines in online scams

May. 10, 2013 - 04:32PM   |  
MAR NCIS Extortion Warning MWM 20130424
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Okinawa, Japan, is warning Marines not to get caught with their pants down. Five Marines have become the victims of blackmail after scammers, using social media sites, lured them into sexual video encounters, which they secretly recorded. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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If you are thinking about disrobing for an online sexual encounter with a stranger, think again. Five Marines in Japan who did just that were victimized by a new brand of extortion.

The encounters can start innocently enough, typically in the form of a friend request or message from a beautiful young woman via a social media site like Facebook. Eventually though, the Marine is encouraged to participate in simultaneous sexual activity with the woman via Skype. What he doesn’t know is that she’s recording the encounter on her end — and then the scam begins. The Marine is told to pay up or the scammers will send the video to his command.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Okinawa, Japan, issued a warning to Marines following five reported cases of extortion. They warn that service members are being expressly targeted, and it’s not just happening in Japan. There are reports of similar incidents happening in other locations and involving other services, said Ed Buice, a spokesman for NCIS.

Since the tactic is digital in nature, it can happen anywhere and is already proving to be a global problem. Police departments in Quebec, Canada, and Singapore have issued similar warnings to civilians following a string of complaints in those two areas.

While Internet scams are nothing new, recording sexual encounters for the purpose of blackmail is, Buice said. And it’s particularly effective against service members, he said.

“Military members are at greater risk because they are bound by strict rules of conduct under the [Uniform Code of Military Justice], especially if they hold a security clearance,” he said. “What might be embarrassing to a civilian can be career-ending for a service member and can end up affecting an entire command.”

Scammers see several other benefits in targeting Marines and other service members, said Marisa Johnson, who runs a site dedicated to outing online fakers called RomanceScam.com.

“They are more frequently targeted because it is assumed they are more susceptible because of limited contacts for sex,” she said. “And they get a regular paycheck, which the scammer wants.”

Marines should look out for anyone who repeatedly steers the conversation toward sex, Johnson said. And be wary if they encourage drinking alcohol during a conversation, which she said scammers do to lower victims’ inhibitions.

The cases in Okinawa resulted in Marines paying $80 to $1,000, via money transfer or credit card, to keep the embarrassing videos under wraps, Buice said.

The simplest way to avoid this type of scam is to ignore friend requests from people you don’t know, Buice said. But you’ll need to be smart about it; scammers will claim to be all kinds of things they’re not.

And when talking to anyone online, Marines should be mindful of anything that might discredit their honor, he said.

“Just don’t provide explicit photos or videos which would be embarrassing or damaging if seen by friends, family members or command,” he said.

When webcams are involved, Marines need to keep their clothes on and hands on the keyboard, Johnson said.

“Everyone with a computer needs to know that what happens on the net stays on the net — forever,” she said.

Marines who become targets of blackmail following an online encounter should contact the nearest Naval Criminal Investigative Service office, Buice said. They should also inform their chain of command right away, said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a spokesman with Headquarters Marine Corps.

“This will allow their leadership to become aware of the situation the Marine faces and the command can provide legal advice and assist in notifying the proper investigative authorities,” Flanagan said.

Johnson said there are other immediate steps Marines can take to protect themselves:

Get the details. Calmly ask the scammer how they want to be paid and negotiate a smaller amount. They expect this, Johnson said, and you can use the details later when you report the attempt to NCIS. Then tell them you need time to get the money and sign off.

Close your accounts. Immediately shut down any social media accounts the scammer knows about or could easily find. That prevents them from reaching your social network, Johnson said. “Blackmail is only effective if the blackmailer can convey intimidation to the victim,” she said. Usually if they can’t get through, they’ll move on.

Ask for help. Man up, take responsibility for what happened and tell someone about it, Johnson said. Also, use a new account to alert your social media contacts that your old profile was compromised and they should ignore any messages coming from it, in case the scammer hacks into it.

Don’t pay them. One of the most important things you should know is never pay the scammer. “They will never stop asking for more,” Johnson said.

Google yourself. Once a day for the next month, search your own name to see if the scammer’s images pop up online, Johnson said. After that first month, search your name at least once a week for about six more months. There are a limited number of places scammers can post pornographic images , she said. But if you do find them, report it to the administrator of the hosting site, she said.

“A respectfully written message to the site administrator asking that the offending and unauthorized images be removed will usually see them pulled down quickly,” she said. It doesn’t hurt to mention that you’ve alerted Google, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, she said.■

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