Future Tense

Inmates Target Military Members in Large-Scale Sextortion Scam

A prison supervisor registers a mobile phone found in a cell at the prison in Paris.
A prison supervisor registers a mobile phone found in a cell at the prison in Paris.
ALAIN JOCARD/Getty Images

Prison inmates in South Carolina received arrest warrants and summonses for a sextortion scam involving catfishing of hundreds of military service members, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service report revealed Wednesday.

With help from outside accomplices, inmates used cellphones to seek out service members on dating sites and social media, then developed romantic relationships with them behind a fake female identity. Ultimately, inmates would blackmail service members for money, the NCIS report said.

How exactly did the inmates get money, you ask? After a few days of romantic conversations, including exchange of nude photos with service members, inmates would sometimes assume the role of the father of the fake female persona. The “father” would claim that his daughter was underage, in which case the photos exchanged would be considered child pornography, the NCIS report said. Other times, prisoners posed as police officers. In both scenarios, inmates would ask for money in exchange for not pressing any charges on the service members. Service members “would then pay, fearful they might lose their careers over possessing what they were being led to believe was child pornography,” the NCIS report said.

This elaborate sextortion scam affected 442 service members from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, the report said, who paid out more than $560,000 altogether.

The NCIS made arrest warrants as the first phase of Operation Surprise Party, an investigation aimed at catching inmates involved in money laundering schemes like this one.

“This despicable targeting of our brave service members will never be tolerated,” said NCIS director Andrew Traver. “This operation will continue until we break the back of these criminal networks.”

More than 250 individuals are still under investigation and may face prosecution. But this is not a unique case. There have been other examples where inmates used cellphones to continue committing crimes virtually, even as they were physically behind prison walls. Many times, the prison guards are the ones selling phones to the inmates, News 5, a CBS-affiliated news website revealed. For example, one phone may be sold for $500 and its charger for $150, the article said.

In July, judges in South Carolina and California ordered cellphone carriers to disable about 200 contraband phones being used by prisoners to prevent them from engaging in criminal activities like drug deals and gang operations, the Associated Press reported.

In response to this most recent sextortion scam, South Carolina Corrections director Brian Stirling and some U.S. Marshals, are renewing a push for an even more severe measure: a total blocking of all mobile signals in prisons.

“The technology exists, and I know it exists, to make these cellphones of no value, to make them useless. To make them nothing but a paperweight in a cell block,” U.S. Marshal Thomas Griffin told ABC News.