A quick picture taken while she was deployed in Afghanistan turned a U.S. Navy sailor’s life on social media upside down.
Criminals grabbed the photograph to set up a fake Facebook profile. The victim, Krista, said “They were using this fake account to build a relationship with other people.”
Krista didn’t figure out the ruse until she started getting online messages from complete strangers.
“These people had given money to this group thinking it was me, that I was in need of help,” she said.
Eva Velasquez, President and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, scams like these happen all too often.
“We believe the people that volunteer to defend our country are trustworthy, salt of the earth, good people, so why wouldn't we trust them when they ask us for something,” Velasquez said.
Krista went to her military security officer and then the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) got involved.
“To have this whole fake persona out there was kind of unsettling,” she said.
Cybercrime investigators found it was a criminal group in Africa that was responsible for the account. Authorities worked with Facebook to shut down the account, but even that didn’t stop them.
“Every time I'd shut it down, within a day there was a new one back up again,” Krista said. She resorted to using Google's reverse image search to find her pictures online on fake accounts and shut them down too.
Velasquez says her agency tells people to look for red flags when they meet someone online; the relationship moves too fast, this new friend asks for money, and is always available.
“If you're beau is really in the military they probably can't answer within 30 seconds of every post that you have no matter what time of day,” Velasquez said.
Krista says the experience has her concerned about her family’s and her own safety, and says she feels bad for others who have been sucked in by cyber criminals on social media.
“They are definitely taking advantage of that personality, that empathy the people have for military,” she said.
“The stories become more heartbreaking and urgent and more tragic about why they somehow need this money and they can't seem to get to you even though a lot of promises have been made,” she added.
According to the FBI, agents have investigated about 20,000 cases like Krista’s. Velasquez says many more cases go unreported because people don’t know their image is being used in that way or they are embarrassed that they became a victim.
Velasquez says there is no need to be ashamed and to contact an agency likes theirs immediately before it is too late.
“Unfortunately, by the time we hear from many of the romance scam victims we’re talking about six-figure losses. We’ve talked to people who emptied out their 401K,” she said.
Sadly those who protect our country have to take more steps to protect themselves from being part of an online scheme that can do financial harm.