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Army says romance scammers using soldiers' pics

Dec. 5, 2012 - 07:08AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 5, 2012 - 07:08AM  |  
Maj. Gordon Hammett, shown here on deployment, said he had no idea that people were using his identity to steal money.
Maj. Gordon Hammett, shown here on deployment, said he had no idea that people were using his identity to steal money. (Courtesy of Maj. Gordon Hammett)
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Maj. Gordon Hannett's grinning face has been used to break hundreds of hearts and steal thousands of dollars, but he's an innocent victim. Scammers have copied his photos from his Iraq deployment countless times to seduce and bilk lonely women online.

"At this point, I've heard from over 300," said Hannett, a 46-year-old Reserve military policeman at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., and an attorney in civilian life. "I used to write down the names, but I gave up. Every week, there's two or three."

Hannett is not alone. Special agents from Army Criminal Investigation Command have once again issued a warning that photos of soldiers — from the lowliest private to the highest-ranking generals — are being used to seduce and solicit money from online romance-seekers.

Often, the soldiers whose names or pictures are being used don't know it's happening.

CID continues to receive hundreds of complaints from victims, most often women between 30 and 55 years old who believe they are romantically involved with a deployed soldier they met on a social network or dating site.

"We cannot stress enough that people need to stop sending money to persons they meet on the Internet and claim to be in the U.S. military," CID spokesman Christopher Grey said in a statement. "It is heartbreaking to hear these stories over and over again of people who have sent thousands of dollars to someone they have never met and sometimes have never even spoken to on the phone."

Typically, the scammers build a false identity using a photo or photos of an actual soldier, and possibly his or her name and rank.

"We have even seen instances where the [s]oldier was killed in action and the crooks have used that hero's identity to perpetrate their twisted scam," CID Special Agent Matthew Ivanjack said in a statement.

After communicating romantically with the victim for a time, the scammer eventually requests money to buy special laptop computers, international telephones or military leave papers to continue the false relationship.

It's not only theft but a "grave misrepresentation" of the support soldiers receive today, Grey said. The scammer will say he has no access to a phone or his bank account, or that he needs to purchase leave papers to leave the war zone, or that he needs cash to "help keep the Army Internet running," Grey said.

"These perpetrators, often from other countries, most notably from West African countries, are good at what they do and quite familiar with American culture, but the claims about the Army and its regulations are ridiculous," Grey said.

Soldiers who are impersonated rarely suffer career blowback unless they are in military intelligence and trying to keep a low profile, said C.J. Grisham, who has written extensively about the scam on the blog http://asp.militarygear.com/">A Soldier's Perspective.

However, scammers like to use photos of married soldiers with families from which they can spin sad tales of dead wives and single fatherhood. When heartbroken victims contact the real-life spouses of these soldiers, confusion and worse can ensue.

"They fall in love with an image, and when the real guy is married, they call the wife and say your husband is cheating on you with me," Grisham said. "It can hurt relationships."

It is hard to blame the victims, despite their gullibility, because they are so emotionally vulnerable, Grisham said.

"Generally, they have just left a relationship and they are getting up there in age, and they're desperate for anybody to love them," he said.

Photos misused

Hannett did not know his photos were being used to scam women until he joined Facebook in 2009. Almost immediately, he began hearing from women who believed they had corresponded with him — from as far away as Australia and Malaysia.

"Some were very nice and said, ‘I know your photo was used to scam me,' and a few thought I was the scammer and took their money," Hannett said. "They were very, very upset."

He figured out that scammers had copied photos from a 2005 Iraq deployment, which he'd uploaded for his family to a public website. Hannett said he smiled in the photos to reassure his family he was safe, and that smile made the photos appeal to scammers — and women.

He has since deleted the account, but the photos are everywhere.

Hannett said he tries to alert sites where he spots phony profiles with his picture, but it would be a full-time job.

"Right now, there's a ‘Michael Hannett' on Facebook and a ‘Carl Hannett' who they won't delete," he said. "These people have lots of friends on Facebook, and they're definitely scammers."

The scam is so common that one of Hannett's co-workers is in the same boat. Hannett has seen dozens of accounts from soldiers online, many of them happily married, who have been contacted by lonely-hearts bilked by their photos.

The women, who fell in love with a picture, want to warn Hannett and often hope to start a relationship with him.

"Almost every time, they'll say something like, ‘Your wife must be very proud of you,' hoping I'll say, ‘Oh, no. I'm single,'" he said. "I almost always avoid the whole topic."

The women have been corresponding with scammers who tell them what they want to hear, quote poetry and profess their love. When it evaporates, they want to regain the relationship they lost.

"It's confusing and hard for them to get past that," Hannett said. "They think, ‘Maybe I can have a relationship with the guy whose photo I fell in love with.'"

Ignoring red flags

For Angelita Felixberto, once she had fallen for the smooth-talking "Capt. Brad Scott Miller," it was hard to let go — even after her friends pointed to all the red flags. "Miller," whom the 47-year-old divorcee in Cape Cod, Mass., met on Craigslist, was "looking for a soul mate."

After a few weeks of corresponding with him over the summer via instant messages, she asked friends in the Army what they thought of the cute and charming widower in his 40s. By that time, she was engrossed with him, chatting online with him day and night.

"I was already kind of in love with the guy," Felixberto said. "He was such a good listener and good conversationalist. He gives you a picture of your dreams."

But the uniform in his pictures was wrong for Afghanistan, a friend said, and why did "Miller" first tell her he was an E-4, then change his story to say he was a captain?

"Miller" had demanded Felixberto keep their correspondence a secret, and when she told him she had discussed him with her friends, he disappeared.

It took a month to get over her hurt feelings, Felixberto said. More worrisome, she said, she had sent him a dozen "very personal" photos of herself in poses and outfits chosen by "Miller."

"There's the feeling I've been had," she said. "There was all the emotional hurt, but I've moved on."

A vulnerable divorcee

Sue Chitwood describes herself as "street smart" with a postgraduate degree. But, reeling from a pending divorce, her emotions got the better of her intellect.

After 12 years of marriage, Chitwood entered the strange new world of DateHookup.com.

"I was obviously lonely and looking for someone to talk to," said Chitwood, 55, of DeKalb, Ill.

"Sgt. Ken Johnson" used a common ploy to tug at Chitwood's heartstrings, saying he was a widower with a daughter he missed terribly while deployed to Afghanistan.

"I fell for this guy, hook, line and sinker, because he was everything that my husband was not: sweet, sensitive, caring and thoughtful," she said.

Over last summer, the two exchanged 900 emails, and Chitwood eventually sent $300, supposedly to pay for a phone so "Johnson" could call.

He spoke in heavily accented English, used poor grammar in correspondence and never seemed to get the correct time in Afghanistan. But he had an explanation for it all, and Chitwood let it slide.

She again sent several hundred dollars, supposedly for leave papers so he could visit her. When he asked for $200 for "snacks," however, the spell was broken.

"I was like, you've got to be kidding me," she said.

Chitwood went to the local police but was told the size of her money transfers — which went to a Western Union office in Florida — did not justify an investigation.

Amid the collapse of her marriage, work troubles and being scammed, Chitwood said, she was hospitalized for an emotional breakdown.

"It's the emotional heartbreak, not only that you've been scammed, but it's another relationship that's been broken," she said. "Now you can't trust people because you don't know who to trust."

Chitwood said she has since recovered and is speaking out to help other victims.

"Now, I'm stronger," she said, "but when he caught me, I wasn't strong at all."

What to do

The Army's Online and Social Media Division recommends soldiers safeguard their social media profiles, customizing their privacy settings to limit access to their information and not "friend" anyone the soldier has not met face to face.

The Army's Facebook privacy tips are at http://www.eur.army.mil/vigilance/Facebook_Safety.ppt">www.eur.army.mil/vigilance/Facebook_Safety.ppt.

CID recommends victims report soldier impersonators to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, http://www.ic3.gov">www.ic3.gov, and the Federal Trade Commission at http://www.ftc.gov/idtheft">www.ftc.gov/idtheft or 877-ID-THEFT.

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