Spot Military Romance Scams with Common Red Flags
Online dating can provide great opportunities to meet new romantic partners. However, it’s also a favorite tool of scammers. Romance scams, including specific types like military romance scams and pig butchering are rampant. Learning how to verify a person is real now can save you from heartbreak and financial loss down the road.
See How to Spot Fake Dating Profiles with Kathy Waters and Bryan Denny for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.
Kathy Waters and Bryan Denny are co-founders of the nonprofit organization Advocating Against Romance Scammers. Bryan is a retired colonel, and Kathy is an expert advocate and educator about romance scams. They have been working for safer platforms since 2016, advocating justice for victims and educating everyone online about the cybercrime known to hurt people emotionally, financially, and psychologically.
The Story Behind Advocating Against Romance Scammers
Bryan’s Face Used for Military Romance Scams
For Bryan, it started in 2016. He was leaving the military and updating his LinkedIn profile to assist in his civilian job search. Someone messaged him saying she wanted to talk to him. At that point, still naive about the dangers of the internet, Bryan gave her his phone number, assuming it was about a potential job. It wasn’t.
This woman said she had been talking to him online for weeks, even though this was the first time Bryan had ever spoken to her. She sent him pictures of himself from social media, and even showed him plane tickets with his information. According to her, Bryan was going to be flying in from Syria soon to spend time with her in Montreal. When he asked where she got all this information about him, she said to search on Facebook.
When Bryan searched for his own name on Facebook, he found dozens of fake profiles pretending to be him. He had become a victim of likeness theft. These fake profiles took pictures off of his legitimate social media accounts and used them to pretend to be him. Then they used these fake profiles, featuring a trustworthy-looking military man, to pull of military romance scams. Bryan spent months trying to get Facebook to take the fake profiles down, but was largely unsuccessful.
Kathy Tracked Down the Real Person Behind the Scammer
In 2016, a friend of Kathy’s mother came over for Thanksgiving. This friend couldn’t stop gushing about her new fiance. He seemed too good to be true, and Kathy’s mom immediately recognized the warning signs of an online dating scam.
Kathy looked up this “fiance,” who was using the name Ross Newton. She found his account, complete with pictures of a man in military uniform. But when Kathy looked closely at the uniformed picture, she could see the name badge didn’t say “Newton,” but instead “Lenny” or “Denny.”
Kathy decided to find the person whose pictures were being used for military romance scams. A search for “Army man Denny” brought her to Bryan’s LinkedIn, and she reached out. At this point, Bryan was having no luck getting scammers pretending to be him off Facebook, and he was glad for the help. They started documenting the fake accounts, and managed to get some connections at Facebook to report it.
Creating a Nonprofit
Throughout their whole endeavor to stop Bryan’s pictures from being used in military romance scams, Kathy and Bryan saw how little was being done to limit romance scammers and how much more could be done. From there, they decided to educate both people and lawmakers about the realities and dangers of romance scams.
We know that we have to educate our lawmakers on this too.Kathy Waters
Advocating Against Romance Scammers became a nonprofit a year and a half ago. They provide education and awareness to help people avoid falling prey to romance scams, as well as educating lawmakers on the dangers and solutions in an effort to change policy. They also provide guidance to past victims. Though they are not licensed psychologists, they help victims report the fraud and guide them to therapeutic help or other appropriate assistance.
Military Romance Scams Are Common
The conventional wisdom is not to trust a dating profile with a person in uniform. And that is still good advice. Though there’s no specific military rule against posting pictures of yourself in uniform on a dating site, it’s generally not a smart thing to do. If you’re talking to someone in uniform on a dating site, that should send up a red flag.
You should be suspicious off the bat if someone is posting pictures of themselves in uniform on a dating site.Bryan Denny
One of the things Advocating Against Romance Scammers tries to educate people about is the sheer volume of scammers on dating sites passing themselves off as members of the military. Military romance scams are all over the place. If your new dating app match has a habit of posting photos of themselves in uniform, that’s a red flag. It doesn’t guarantee that they are a scammer, but it’s definitely a reason to put your guard up.
What a Military Romance Scam Account Looks Like
There are some commonalities between military romance scams that you can watch for. And these aren’t just profiles on actual dating sites like Tinder and Bumble. Scammers will search for victims on social media and other messaging platforms, as well. Beware of these scam account red flags.
Brand New Accounts
Most scam accounts, whether they’re for military romance scams or another type of scam, are new accounts. They will generally be a few months old or newer.
Few, Photoshopped Photos
Since the scammers rely on the real person whose photos they are stealing to get photos for their fake account, they don’t have a lot of options. These accounts frequently have just a couple of photos. Often, these photos are photoshopped as well.
Friends or Followers are All the Same Sex
On a social media network that allows friends or followers, like Facebook or Instagram, a scam account’s friends or followers will all be of the same sex. For example, if the scammer is running a military romance scam pretending to be a military man looking for a female partner, all the friends or followers on that account will be female.
An Excuse to be Far Away
Scammers love a reason to not be nearby so you don’t expect to meet. Obviously, with military romance scams, the reason is they’re in the military and deployed overseas. However, that’s not the only excuse they use. Another common one is that they work on an offshore oil rig. Whatever the reason, if they have an excuse to be far away, it’s a red flag.
Broken or Incorrect English
This is a common red flag for many scams, not just romance scams. The scam economy is global, and many scammers are from overseas and are not native English speakers. If their English is broken, stilted, or otherwise off, you may be speaking with a scammer.
Love bombing is a manipulation tactic that romance scammers use frequently. It involves showering you with love and affection incessantly and much faster than is appropriate for an online stranger. They might say they love you right away, or call you endearments like “dear,” “babe,” or “queen.” It’s a tactic to get you invested in the fake relationship.
Asking Probing Questions
It’s normal for a potential romantic partner to ask you about where you’re from, what you do for work, and other similar questions. But scammers dive into probing questions quickly, such as asking whether you’re a homeowner or if you own any property. (It’s generally a good idea not to give out that information to anyone online at all.) They have limited time to keep conversations going, so they have to make decisions about who to try to scam. Deep probing questions to help them gauge your financial situation will help them decide if the payout is big enough to keep talking to you.
Scammers love to reuse stories that work. The military romance scams using Bryan’s pictures have used one particular story repeatedly. They claim to be a widower on a humanitarian mission in the Middle East, with their son in boarding school in the United States. Then they say their son was injured in a riding accident and they need money for his medical care. It’s a compelling story – there’s animals, an important humanitarian mission, and helping your child – and its easy to get someone invested in it.
People want to do good by a soldier that’s deployed and send him money to help his son get the medical attention that he needs … I have seen that time and time again over the last few years.Bryan Denny
People want to help a soldier get medical care for his son, so they send the money. It’s a story that has led to big payouts for scammers, so they keep using it. Bryan gets messages daily about military romance scams using his pictures, and they almost always use this story because it works. Whatever story they tell you, chances are that they’ve also told the same story to hundreds of other people.
Avoiding Giving You Information
Scammers don’t want you to have any information about them, because if you know the truth, you’ll know they’re a scammer. They often have excuses for why they can’t give you perfectly ordinary information. Military romance scams are a great excuse for that. If they’re pretending to be a soldier, they can claim that they want to tell you some information but their chain of command says they can’t. Or they might go as far as to say that you can’t know who they really are because of the sensitive nature of their work. People do buy that.
There’s 101 ways to create a “this is why I can’t share this data with you” excuse, but you’ve gotta be suspect of that.Bryan Denny
If they aren’t sharing information they should be able to share with you, you should probably wonder why. There’s a reason they don’t want to tell you the truth. They don’t want you to know what they’re really up to.
Romance Scammers Target Everyone
The demographic we’re most familiar with is older people. People in their late sixties or seventies who have lost their spouse and are lonely and vulnerable are common targets for romance scams. Often, it starts with them just looking for someone to talk to.
During the pandemic, though, the demographic shifted. With the lockdowns in place, everyone was home and everyone was lonely. It’s not just elderly people being targeted by romance scammers. Romance scammers target anyone and everyone, regardless of age.
It’s hard to get accurate data on romance scams because people don’t want to report it. Whether or not they lost money to a romance scam, most people are embarrassed that they got caught in it. More people have started talking about it lately, and that has helped. If you don’t talk about it, it helps no one. But if you talk about it and raise awareness, people know they aren’t alone.
People are embarrassed and ashamed to come forward, and they really shouldn’t be because they deserve their justice as much as anyone else.Kathy Waters
Kathy started a TikTok with the goal of sharing information about romance scams. The demographic of TikTok skews young, but she hoped they would see the information and pass it on to the older people in their lives. What she found, though, was younger people – in their thirties and even in their twenties – reaching out to her to share their own experiences. They had heard of romance scams but assumed they were smart enough to spot it. It caused them to let their guard down. Almost every message Kathy receives says, “I never though this would happen to me.”
How to Avoid Military Romance Scams
In addition to being aware of red flags, here are a few more things you can do to protect yourself from military romance scams.
Don’t Rely on One Red Flag
You can’t just go by one red flag, you do have to look into it further.Kathy Waters
Just one red flag does not a scammer make. There are real deployed military personnel and oil rig workers looking for love on dating apps. Not every real person exploring online dating has a perfect grasp of English. There are many legitimate reasons to have a brand new account. When you should worry is when you start seeing more than one. Kathy recommends that if you see three or more red flags, it’s time to move on.
Ask a Military Friend
With military romance scams, a person who is really in the military can easily poke holes in a scammer’s story. If you don’t have a friend in the military, Kathy and Bryan are glad to be a resource. They do their best to reply quickly to all messages. If you’re suspicious of a person or worried about a scam, they invite you to message them and ask questions.
I never want people to hesitate because they don’t have a friend in the military or they’re afraid to ask – that’s why we’re here.Kathy Waters
Video Calls are No Longer Foolproof
Past conventional wisdom was that scammers won’t get on a video call. But scammers are getting smarter. Sometimes they use slowed down, sped up, and/or voiced-over videos for a Skype or Zoom call. They go to the real account of the person whose face they’re using, record a video that they have recorded and posted, and then edit it and show it to their victim.
They use other tactics too. The lighting might be so bad that you can’t fully see their face. Military romance scammers can always claim that there is a bad connection or slow internet or that they’re at a top secret base and can’t share information.
When on a video call, you can try specific commands like “turn your head left” or “put your hand on your head” as a test. A real person would be able to do that easily. A scammer using a pre-recorded video won’t be able to do that. They’ll have an excuse, but it’s a red flag.
What to Do if You’ve Been Talking with a Scammer
You’ve been corresponding with someone for a little bit. You’ve also been paying attention to how they’ve been acting, and you’re seeing a lot of red flags. At this point, you’re pretty confident you’ve been corresponding with a romance scammer. What do you do next?
Stop All Contact
The first step when you realize you’ve been talking with a scammer is to stop all communication. Don’t contact them at all, even to tell them why you’ve stopped talking to them. For many people, this is the hardest part. A romantic entanglement affects the brain almost like an addiction. Completely stopping all communication can be very painful. But it’s the best thing to do.
Screenshot All Pertinent Information
Many times, people want to delete the conversations and forget it ever happened. But scammers are very good at covering their tracks. Screenshot everything relevant – information related to the scam, asking for money, blackmailing attempts, etc. Scammers like to move communication from wherever they met you to an encrypted messaging site like WhatsApp. If they think they’re in legal trouble, they’ll delete everything on their end, and it’s very hard to find that communication once it’s gone. So screenshot and save everything you can.
Gather as much information as you can, keep it in a file folder on your computer … if you delete everything on your end, your proof is gone.Kathy Waters
Once you have your proof saved, report the scammer to IC3.gov. IC3 lets you send reports to the FBI’s cybercrime unit. If your case is small individually, they may group it together with other cases. When you file a report with IC3, it may take months for them to get back to you. It’s important to hold on to your screenshots and proof while you wait.
Blocking the scammer on every channel you’ve talked to them is an important step. It helps you stop all contact. It also prevents the scammer from contacting you and coercing, manipulating, or threatening you into continuing with the scam.
Make Your Profile Private
Scammers share information. If you’ve responded to a scammer in the past, your information got put on a list of people who fall for scams. Your information will then get passed on to other scammers and you will be targeted again. Setting your profile to private will prevent some of these other scammers from finding you, and will make it harder for them to contact you.
Just because you’re blocking this person, not only will they have more accounts to approach you under, they’re going to sell your information … do not accept any friend requests from anyone you don’t know in person.Kathy Waters
A secure door can’t protect you if you open it and let a threat in. Once you have your profile set to private, don’t accept friend requests, follow requests, or message requests from anyone you don’t know in real life. The original scammer you talked to might try to snare you again with a different account. And other scammers they’ve sold your information to will try to catch you in their scams. We all want to be able to make new friends online, but once you’ve responded to a scammer, it’s their way of trying to get more money out of you. If you fell for it once, they’ll keep trying, hoping you’ll fall for it again.
What to Do if Your Loved One is Talking to a Scammer
Your friend or relative may not realize the overseas soldier they’ve been chatting with is suspicious, but you’re picking up on some red flags for military romance scams. They’re excited to tell you all about their new love, but you think they’re falling for a scam. What can you do?
You can try to gently get them to see the red flags. Suggest that it sounds too good to be true, or mention that such-and-such a thing is a common red flag of a scammer. Try getting your loved one to ask some questions to find out if the online soldier is real. For instance, a real military person would have an Army Postal Office address that they can freely give out, while military romance scammers would give an excuse like claiming it’s confidential. Subtly warn your loved one about the red flags you’re spotting.
Unfortunately, on a lot of these scams, the manipulation is already deep enough that they’re not going to believe you.Kathy Waters
The bad news is that many people caught in romance scams won’t believe anyone who tells them it’s a scam. Not even close loved ones can get through. If you try to tell them their perfect soldier is a scammer, you may be the bad guy. You can provide information and be there for them when it goes badly, but that may be all you can do. Sometimes they have to figure it out on their own.
Resources for Scam Victims
If you lost money to a military romance scam or other kind of scam, it can be financially destructive and hard to recover from. But even if you didn’t lose money, the emotional damage can be just as devastating. Scammers tend to target people who are already emotionally vulnerable. They’re basically kicking someone while they’re down.
A significant number of people who walk away from this, even if they’re not financially hurt, are emotionally devastated.Bryan Denny
If you have been caught by a scam, there are resources available. You can report your crime to the FBI at IC3.gov. The Cybercrime Support Network has support groups you can attend. The FBI has victim support specialists available to help. There isn’t a lot of clinical support out there for victims of romance scams, but Kathy recommends finding a licensed marriage and family therapist.
If you can’t find help, reach out to Advocating Against Romance Scammers. Kathy and Bryan would be happy to help connect you with the support you need.
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