Investigators: More than 400 service members tricked out of $560,000 in 'sextortion ring'

Investigators: More than 400 service members tricked out of $560,000 in 'sextortion ring'

The Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS) on Wednesday said it had issued arrest warrants on a “sextortion ring” that targeted more than 400 U.S. military service members and extorted more than half a million dollars total after South Carolina inmates made them believe they possessed child porn. 

The online schemes “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,” the NCIS said in a statement.

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Aided by outside civilian associates, South Carolina inmates used fake online profiles to target military service members through social media forums and online dating websites. The prisoners would pose as a woman, engaging in online romantic relationships and exchanging pictures with service members.

After the service member responded to the photos, prisoners would then take the role of the woman's father, or an authority figure like a police officer, and would claim that the woman was a juvenile.

The inmates would demand money in exchange for not pursuing charges through law enforcement channels, which military members would pay.

“With nothing more than smart phones and a few keystrokes, South Carolina inmates along with outside accomplices victimized hundreds of people," Daniel Andrews, director of the Computer Crime Investigative Unit of the Army Criminal Investigation Command, said in the statement.

"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.” 

Arrest warrants and summons were served on Wednesday by agents from military criminal investigative organizations for money laundering, extortion and wire fraud.

The statement did not include how many arrests and summons were served, but said that more than 250 additional people are being investigated and face potential future prosecution.

The NCIS notes that this is the first phase of Operation Surprise Party, an investigation started in January 2017 by the law enforcement arm, with help from the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, Army Criminal Investigation Command and Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

The U.S. Attorney's Office, IRS, United States Marshals Service, Department of Energy, South Carolina and North Carolina local agencies, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, and the South Carolina Department of Corrections were also partners in the operation.

“This despicable targeting of our brave service members will never be tolerated," NCIS Director Andrew Traver said.

"We will not allow criminal networks to degrade the readiness of our military force. This operation will continue until we break the back of these criminal networks."