Agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service executed arrest warrants Wednesday in connection to a sextortion ring that has victimized hundreds of service members since 2015.
The warrants are the first phase of “Operation Surprise Party," an effort launched in 2017 by a collaboration of military and civilian law enforcement agencies to foil a prisoner-led extortion, money laundering and wire fraud scheme that “cost 442 service members from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps from across the United States more than $560,000 in financial loss,” a Wednesday NCIS release said.
Army officials and South Carolina law enforcement revealed in October that prison inmates posing on dating applications as women in the same age bracket as the targeted soldier were allegedly duping service members into wiring cash following nude photo text message exchanges.
“Once making contact on the dating application, the conversations are transferred to phone-to-phone text messaging,” the October warrant said. “After several hours to several days of texting, the subject will either send unsolicited nude images of a female to the victim and/or agree to trade sexually explicit images with the victim.”
But shortly after swapping photos with the inmate, the unsuspecting soldier would receive a text from another phone number, one belonging to a completely different prisoner, who would then pose as the fictional girl’s father or law enforcement official.
“The ‘father’ then notifies the victim that the female is under the age of 18," the warrant stated. "The father will typically state that he will leave law enforcement out of the equation if the victim agrees to pay for various things like cell phone replacement, counseling, hospital treatments, etc.”
Targeted service members often succumb to the pressure, the NCIS release said, forking over the funds out of fear of repercussions from their command as a panic sets in that they’ve unknowingly been soliciting child pornography.
Once the soldiers wire the cash, a runner, or "money mule,” receives the transfer and deposits the funds into a JPay account, a payment processing system used by inmates.
JPay also oversees distribution of South Carolina’s costly prison tablet services, the report said, so the inmates can directly apply the “sextorted” money to funding the online scheme from inside the prison’s walls.
”With nothing more than smart phones and a few keystrokes, South Carolina inmates along with outside accomplices victimized hundreds of people," said Daniel Andrews, director of the Army Criminal Investigation Command’s Computer Crime Investigative Unit. “This enforcement operation sends a clear message about our unwavering commitment to protect our nation’s service members so they can focus on their mission of winning wars and defending the American way of life."
There are more than 250 additional individuals currently being investigated who could face prosecution, NCIS said.
“This despicable targeting of our brave service members will never be tolerated,” said Andrew Traver, NCIS director. “We were able to complete this first phase because of the excellent work by all our law enforcement partners. ... This operation will continue until we break the back of these criminal networks."
The South Carolina Department of Corrections has petitioned to end inmates' ability to use mobile communication devices inside prisons, a policy change that gained momentum in April after prisoners used contraband cell phones to coordinate a riot that left seven inmates dead.
“Operation Surprise Party” is a joint effort by NCIS, Defense Criminal Investigative Service, Army Criminal Investigation Command and Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the release said. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Marshals Service, Department of Energy, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the South Carolina Department of Corrections are also contributing.
Personnel who suspect they’re being targeted by a sextortion scheme are encouraged to contact their local criminal investigative organization, the release said.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.