America needs more patriots like my cousin, U.S. Army staff sergeant, combat veteran and Bronze Star recipient Erik Wolf. Unfortunately, that’s not what an impostor had in mind when he created dozens of fraudulent versions of the war hero on Facebook in an attempt to defraud unsuspecting Americans eager to serve the troops who serve us.
Numerous phony Facebook accounts using photographs of Erik and his wife Annie have popped up, each with variations of his name. First came “Wolf Erik.” Then “Benjamin Wolf,” “Mark Wolf,” “Collins Wolf,” and so many others, each with an elaborate but fictional biography centered on the same disturbing theme: his wife is dead.
Unfortunately, these Internet scams are nothing new. They typically are so-called “romance scams” that originate in West Africa and involve stealing biographical information of real soldiers in hopes of tricking unsuspecting women on dating websites into sending money for all sorts of fictitious reasons.
In the case of my cousin Erik, the poseur had a particularly twisted approach. He created falsified Facebook accounts with profile pictures of the real staff sergeant in uniform and featured photographs of his real wife with proclamations of her death. “My late wife” reads the description of one photograph of the couple who, in real life, are very much alive and are very much unimpressed with the fraud.
In an effort to avoid confusion and possible heartache with friends and family, the real Erik and Annie Wolf have taken to posting “proof-of-life” photos of themselves on their own Facebook accounts holding dated signs reading “I am the real Erik Wolf” and, in reference to his wife, “Yes, she’s very much alive and we are happily married.”
As disturbing as this plot is, the motivation is purely financial. The perpetrator, under the numerous stolen and falsified identities, preys on sympathetic and generous Americans by soliciting donations under the guise of needing funds to return to the states to visit his bereft children, who are grieving their mother’s death and missing their dad, who’s stuck in a war zone. Again, all false.
Dozens of these fraudulent accounts have been discovered on Facebook (and others elsewhere) for this one soldier alone. Most have been removed but it’s not easy playing a never-ending whack-a-mole game. Close down one account and two more pop up. What’s worse is that at times Facebook itself has been less than helpful. On one occasion in particular, when Mrs. Wolf reported that the “Wolf Erik” account was composed of photographs that were all lifted from her husband’s account, a fact easily confirmed by glancing at each account, Facebook responded: “We carefully reviewed the timeline you reported, but found it doesn’t violate our community standard on identity and privacy so we didn’t remove it.”
If impersonating soldiers to defraud civilians doesn’t violate Facebook’s standards, then what would?
The Army Criminal Investigation Command warns Internet users to be vigilant for these scams. To date, there are no reports of any U.S. soldiers being financially victimized, yet the growing list of civilian victims is heartbreaking. In some extreme cases, unsuspecting civilians have been bilked of tens of thousands of dollars, all in the hopes of finding love or aiding a downtrodden soldier.
“We cannot stress enough that people need to stop sending money to persons they meet on the Internet and claim to be in the U.S. military,” warns Chris Grey, spokesman for the Army.
A combat veteran of multiple tours in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, Staff Sergeant Erik Wolf takes it all in stride. Says the Bronze Star Medal recipient, “Once someone has shot at you with an RPG, you tend not to get too worked up about silliness. The issue, however, pisses me off. They are using my image and identity to scam innocent people. Not cool.”
Dr. Milton Wolf is a physician, author, conservative columnist and cousin of President Barack Obama. He blogs at MiltonWolf.com. Follow him on Twitter: @miltonwolfmd