What is an Army Romance Scam?
An army romance scam is a subcategory of romance scams, and a type of authorized push payment fraud where the attacker uses social engineering techniques to leverage an emotional relationship. In the case of an army romance scam, the attacker will pretend to be military personnel. Adopting this persona serves two functions: pretending to be in the army, and perhaps on tour, provides the attacker with an excuse for not being able to visit and see the victim, and being unauthorized to turn his camera on.
The objective is to usually, but not exclusively, obtain financial gain or get the person to do something on the attacker’s behalf. Army romance scams are not only committed to extort money from the victim, but also steal personal information and credentials to carry out other theft or fraud schemes. Websites like military.com often report on scams involving impersonated military, and sometimes even highly ranked generals.
What are signs of a Military Scammer?
When approaching their victim, military scammers will give signs that should alert the victim. Most of the time, their approach tactic will remain the same, whomever the person is speaking to:
- The saying “too good to be true” often applies to online scammers. Military scammers will often “sweet-talk” to their victims and mention how badly they want to meet. Red flags include if the person is moving too fast, appears to have a highly charged emotional connection after a few conversations, or even proposes before meeting in real life.
- The person will often request a small sum of money to continue the relationship. He/she may say they need money for a secure phone line, or to book his plane ticket to come and meet because they cannot access their bank account. The attacker will use different pretenses and leverage the fact that your emotional bond could be lost if the victim does not comply;
- When requested to have a video or even phone call, the military scammer will refuse for security reasons;
- Often run by non-native speakers, the way the scammers express themselves should alert the victim.
When in doubt, it is important to check the person’s background story, and determine if everything holds up. Here are a few tips to better detect military scammers:
- As they often use stolen photographs from actual social media users, try Google reverse image search to check if those pictures are easily retrievable online. You may also find out the real person’s name behind those pictures;
- Military scammers have a backstory prepared. But, sometimes inconsistencies become evident. Ask them where they are serving, from which unit, and check information regarding their deployment. They sometimes do not bother to check if their statements are true and will make things up on the go;
- To not reveal their true identity, scammers will refuse to talk over the phone or make a video call for security reasons, so ask them to send you pictures with personalized messages or videos featuring your name, to check if the person is real;
- More generally, ask follow-up questions regarding their life story to check against anything odd or suspicious.
How does an Army Romance Scam work?
Military scammers will often prey upon people who express emotional distress and loneliness, so the modus operandi is very similar to other romance scams:
- Military scammers will browse through online dating apps and websites to select their victims. Their profiles will be carefully crafted with stolen photos, and an established back story;
- After making first contact, scammers will take time to develop the relationship, but will quickly say they are looking for an honest person and a serious relationship. They will use social engineering and leverage emotional distress to bond with the victim. Moreover, they will create excuses to explain why they cannot meet the victim in person, often pretexting they are serving in a foreign country;
- Once the relationship has been established, they will make their move and state they need money rapidly under false pretenses related to their military position;
- If the victim accepts, the scam will continue as long as the person continues to send money and remains oblivious. If not, they will disappear as soon as they are detected.
What questions to ask a military person to see if he’s/she’s real
Here are some questions to ask a military person to proof or, ideally verify their identity:
- What is your full name, rank, and military branch?: Genuine military personnel should be able to provide this basic information.
- Where is your current duty station?: They should be able to tell you the base or location where they are stationed.
- Can you provide a military email address?: Military personnel typically have official email addresses from their respective branches.
- What is your Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) or job in the military?: This will help you determine if their claimed role aligns with their rank and branch.
- Are you comfortable with a video call?: A live video call can help confirm the person’s identity.
- Have you deployed, and if so, where and when?: Deployments are common for military personnel, and they should be able to discuss their past experiences if they are genuine.
- Do you have any official social media profiles?: Check if their social media profiles align with the information they provided.
Remember, even if someone answers these questions, it doesn’t guarantee their authenticity. Scammers can be persistent and creative in their deception. Always remain vigilant and use common sense to protect yourself from romance scams and fraud.
How to report an Army Romance Scam
There are different ways to report an incident if you think you have been the victim of an army romance scam. In the US, the Internet Crime complaint Center (IC3) from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) offer the possibility to file a complaint online. You can also report it to the US Military Criminal Investigation Division (CID). In other countries, you may file a complaint to the national military investigation service, or to your local police station. In addition, you can also flag the account on different social networks, to help platforms take them down.
Social media users who have had their photo stolen can also flag and report the accounts to relevant social networks in order to take them down. US personnel can file a complaint on the portal dedicated to identity theft issued by the Federal Trade Commission.
How to prevent an Army Romance Scam as a financial institution
Banks and financial institutions play a fundamental role in their customers’ online protection. As an army romance scam is a type of authorized push payment fraud, it only occurs if the victim willingly transfers funds to the fraudster. However, financial institutions can implement different actions and mechanisms to reduce this type of fraud:
- Transaction monitoring: As many different types of data are collected during the customer journey, financial operators will have a general understanding of their customers’ spending habits. If a customer unexpectedly starts regularly wiring money to a new beneficiary, or buying plane tickets on someone else’s behalf, the bank may issue a warning;
- Machine learning (ML): Transaction monitoring can be helped by ML technology, as the bank is able to dig into a large amount of data and identify past or present patterns among its customers;
- Awareness campaign: One of the most important defenses against these types of scams is to educate customers about the risks. Many financial operators launch mass emailing campaigns to raise awareness of the signs to look out for;
- Strong KYC processes: Financial operators should implement strong KYC processes to deter fraudsters from opening accounts. Robust identity and liveness checks might reduce the number of fraudsters looking to go into business.