Top Scams That Hurt Military FamiliesUpdated: March 24, 2021
If you use the internet, you probably have some kind of experience with scammers whether it’s via a friend or a loved one’s experiences or more directly with your own run-ins with people trying to get something for nothing.
Many people’s experiences with scammers comes (initially) with a robocall with someone claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service, or with a private company that has awarded some kind of prize, or via e-mail with a notice that a hacker has somehow obtained “incriminating” information on the target victim’s computer.
But these kinds of scams are some of the most well-known; what about those that haven’t gotten as much attention as the others but can hurt just as much? Be on the lookout for some of these operations that have fooled more than one person into giving money, personal information, and worse.
Common Characteristics Of Scams That Target Members Of The Military
Below in the following section you will find descriptions of scams that have been used on military members and their families in the past. But no matter what kind of con artist you encounter, there are some similar things you should watch out for that can alert you to a scam.
Pay close attention anytime someone you do not know does any of the following online or in person:
- Asks you for money for transportation costs, bail, fines, fees, marriage processing or medical bills.
- Asks you to send money or ship property to a third party.
- Claims a lack of support or services provided to troops deployed or stationed at overseas locations.
- Communicates exclusively through social media or email. Be especially wary of those who refuse to give you alternate methods to contact them.
- When you get something that pretends to be official correspondence from a commander, First Sergeant, or other military representative, the email does not end with “.mil.” All military members have a “.mil” email address, don’t trust anyone who refuses to give you theirs but claims to be a military member or a civilian employee working for the U.S. military. Official military correspondence will come from .mil email addresses.
The 21st Century Version Of The “Spanish Prisoner” Scam
The Spanish Prisoner scam is a very old confidence trick that has been updated for the 21st Century. The old con game involved hustling a “pigeon” or “mark” (the victim) by convincing them that a famous person has gotten into some kind of trouble and needs anonymous donors to bail them out without attracting public attention. The old-school version of this con trick was done face-to-face in many cases, but today the scam is run by people using social media.
These scammers create fake accounts based on a real Facebook or Twitter user’s identity – they set up a new account in that person’s name, begin harvesting the names of the real person’s friends and other associations online, and building up a friends list on the fake account.
Then, the scammer contacts these people who assume their Facebook or Twitter friend simply opened up a new account. The message is full of “please hurry up and help me!” messages, often claiming that through some kind of travel misadventure they now owe hundreds or thousands of dollars and can’t get their passport back (or some other kind of excuse) without getting money from friends.
How Military Families Are Vulnerable
Military people travel frequently and for these people, the above situation could seem to be plausible; but these scams always involve a high level of pressure to act NOW, and it’s one of the biggest warning signs of a confidence trick at work – you aren’t supposed to have enough time to think rationally about the story or the circumstances surrounding it. And that is because once you DO think about it, you may start to realize that there is something not quite right about the entire situation.
And it’s even harder when the con artist pretends to be someone in an official capacity; you may have complicated titles and ranks you are not familiar with thrown at you in an attempt to disorient and confuse you into “acting right now” to provide “much-needed funds” to help the loved one in need.
How To Avoid Getting Scammed
Always ask the scammer for a contact phone number so that you can call back in a few minutes with payment information. Do not call this phone number if it is unfamiliar to you; contact your friends on social media who have reached out to you in this way on their ORIGINAL ACCOUNTS or via a different means of communication (which is the safest way in circumstances like these) that is not linked to the social media account.
In most cases you will learn that your social media contact’s account has been hacked or scammers fraudulently created a new account in that person’s name. Always report these incidents to the social media platform and to your friends list.
The key to not getting scammed in this instance is not to give any money or data to the person reaching out to you UNLESS you have positively identified that the need actually exists (it likely does not) or that a third party that is personally known to you can verify the information you have been given.
Military Romance Scams
This kind of scam is prevalent enough that the United States Army official site issues a warning to military members, family, and friends.
Army.mil advises people to avoid further developing online relationships with someone believed to be a U.S. Soldier in cases where there are requests for money involved. “Victims may encounter these romance scammers on a legitimate dating website or social media platform, but they are not U.S. Soldiers.”
Similar to the Spanish Prisoner scam mentioned above, this con involves someone stealing the online persona of someone who has served or is currently serving and either using a hacked account or a new account created in the name of the person whose identity has been stolen.
How Military Families Are Vulnerable
Since military people are not necessarily being targeted as the victims of these scams (though it’s not unheard of), this type of con first hurts the military families affected by the identity theft. Imagine if you randomly discovered an online dating profile of someone you know – if you were romantically involved with that person, the first fallout of the scam would occur between those who discover the fake accounts posted in the military member’s name and the victim of the identity theft.
Beyond that, someone who has had their identity stolen for purposes of this type of con job are likely also compromised in other ways. Until the issue is cleared up, could a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine have trouble getting past a security clearance check? Security clearance screenings will take into account evidence of identity theft, but it could mean longer processing times to investigate the issue.
How To Avoid Being Scammed
If you encounter an online dating profile or are contacted by someone who approaches you for the purposes of an online relationship, be extremely wary of any request for money or services. Do not respond to urgent requests or to high-pressure tactics designed to keep you in an emotional state that will keep you from thinking twice about sending money or providing services, especially if you are asked to do so for a third party.
Army.mil takes this advice further, stating, “Never send money to someone claiming to be a soldier!”
The Too-Good-To-Be-True Scam
Craiglist and similar sites can be a bit like the Wild West where potential scams are concerned. Any public buying/selling destination is likely to attract those offering “amazing deals” on everything from concert tickets to home stereo systems. But scammers hoping to catch someone unaware of their con will require some kind of advance payment to hold the item(s), and when the victim goes to pick up what they paid money to reserve, the seller is nowhere to be found.
How Military Families Are Vulnerable
This scam is a bit simpler than the other ones mentioned above, but the end result is the same; a military member or someone they know gets conned into offering money to a stranger. Those who are working with tight budgets, are looking for a deal, and don’t have the ability to do a great deal of follow-up on the transaction they are considering may be prime targets for this kind of scam. The sales platforms such as Craigslist.com, Discogs.com, eBay, Etsy, etc. are legitimate, but the con artist takes advantage of the good reputation of these sites in order to lull people into a false sense of security.
How To Avoid Being Scammed
Don’t fall for any private seller’s requirement that you send money in advance to hold the item, especially if you feel the price is too good to be true. Items like tickets and other goods that have value for a limited time may be quite tempting to buy, but any part of the transaction that seems out of the ordinary or unusual should make you think twice about giving your money.
An Ounce Of Scam Prevention Is Worth A Pound Of Cure
The best way to avoid being scammed, especially by someone who may be targeting military members and their families, is to adopt a few basic rules.
The first is never to send money to someone you do not know even if you are asked to do so by someone you DO know. The same goes for personal information, payment details, or information protected by the Privacy Act.
The second is to simply refuse to act when high-pressure tactics are being used on you. High-pressure situations should be viewed as a red flag; do not give into the pressure tactics.
When contacted in a way that seems suspicious, always ask for the official email, telephone numbers, and addresses where applicable. Always ask the alleged scammer for a telephone number you can contact them at for further information. Don’t trust anyone who refuses or provides suspicious numbers or e-mail addresses. The base commander will never contact you via a Gmail account, likewise for the Department of Veterans Affairs or any other federal or military agency.
This is especially important for families of deployed service members who have received an “urgent communication” regarding the service member. Never act without verifying with the servicemember’s unit. You may learn that a scam has been affecting other members of that unit in recent weeks or months.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News