A group of South Carolina inmates allegedly posed as underage girls to trick U.S. service members into paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars in what investigators are referring to as a “sextortion” ring.
The prisoners created a scheme in which they’d exchange racy photos and messages with members of the U.S. military to lure them into ongoing conversation, and then would pose as the young girl’s father, informing the troops that his daughter was underage and threatening to call the police if they didn’t hand over money.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s (NCIS) investigation found that 442 troops from across the country paid more than $560,000 over the course of the scheme, according to The Washington Post.
“With nothing more than smartphones and a few keystrokes, South Carolina inmates along with outside accomplices victimized hundreds of people,” Army investigator Daniel Andrews said in a statement Wednesday.
Officials reportedly said inmates received help from outside their correctional facilities to smuggle cellphones into the prisons to target members of the military on social media and dating sites, although the NCIS could not say exactly why military troops were targeted specifically.
The inmates would send nude photos of women to unsuspecting service members that they found on the internet, Sherri A. Lydon, United States attorney for the District of South Carolina, said at a Wednesday press conference. The inmates would then pose as the underage girl’s father or another authority figure and demand money from the victims while threatening to alert the military.
“Military members would then pay, fearful that they would lose their careers over possessing what they were led to believe was child pornography,” Drew Goodridge, a special agent with the NCIS, told The New York Times.
The investigation into the extortion scheme, called Operation Surprise Party, was launched in January 2017 by the NCIS, and was later joined by the Army, Air Force, state and federal agents, WaPo’s report states. (RELATED: Three US Service Members Killed In Afghanistan Bombing)
Five arrests and 15 indictments were made Wednesday involving the scheme, with another 250 people under investigation and potentially facing charges, NCIS spokesman Jeff Houston said.
— WIS News 10 (@wis10) November 28, 2018
“This despicable targeting of our brave service members will never be tolerated,” NCIS Director Andrew Traver said in a statement, according to NBC News. “We will not allow criminal networks to degrade the readiness of our military force.”
Lydon partly blamed the scandal on the “unfettered use” of contraband cellphones inside prisons, The Times report states.
A prison guard at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina, Captain Robert Johnson, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in 2017 that prisoners often smuggle cellphones into the facilities by putting them in inmates’ rectums, hollowed-out Bibles, footballs thrown over a fence, bandages and prosthetic legs, or anything else they can think of to get the phone to the inside.
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