Cybercriminals target military online to set up impostor 'romance scams'
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 17, 2019
WASHINGTON — For Staff Sgt. Sherri Vlastuin, Instagram popularity came quickly — and at a price.
Vlastuin, 26, has used the social media network since 2013 to document her life as an Army combat medic at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, her home state. One post — a selfie after her graduation from Air Assault School two years ago — suddenly elevated her page. She has amassed 36,500 followers and is known as an “influencer,” someone who’s established credibility and a high level of engagement online.
She posts about her hikes in Arkansas and Utah, her goldendoodle, workouts and duck-hunting trips, and she’s often wearing American flag apparel, Trump regalia or her Army uniform.
Many of those photos have been used by scammers to create imitation profiles to lure unsuspecting people into “romance scams” — a problem on social media platforms, particularly for American servicemembers.
Romance scams are part of a new 200-page report released Tuesday by Vietnam Veterans of America, which has spent the past two years on a study of online trolls and their tendency to target veterans and servicemembers.
Scammers use Vlastuin’s image — and sometimes her name — to develop relationships with Instagram and Facebook users. After being duped, some of them have tracked down Vlastuin’s authentic account and told her they’d been tricked into sending money. Some expect her to repay them, others seek the same relationship with her that they believed they had with the impostor.
She said she has reported hundreds of the fake accounts to Instagram and Facebook, but they continue to multiply.
“It’s unstoppable,” Vlastuin said. “No matter how many times I report them, I’m barely making a dent.”
Leveraging America’s trust
Vietnam Veterans of America, a congressionally chartered veterans organization, will send its report, “An Investigation into Foreign Entities Who are Targeting Servicemembers and Veterans Online,” to lawmakers Wednesday. Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq War veteran who compiled the study for VVA, plans to share printed copies around Capitol Hill.
The overall goal, he said, is to keep servicemembers, veterans and their families safe in cyber environments. The report urges social media networks and federal law enforcement, with support from Congress, to put more focus and resources toward stopping romance scams.
“The way these foreign entities are abusing the veterans’ population and abusing the trust that people have in us – it’s going to weaken [veterans organizations], veterans at large in the United States,” he told Stars and Stripes.
Researchers with Oxford’s Project on Computational Propaganda reported in 2017 that trolls and bots targeted military personnel and veterans with propaganda, conspiracies and hyperpartisan political content during the 2016 presidential election. Veterans and servicemembers are seen as “potentially influential voters and community leaders” because of the trust the public places in them, the study states.
Scammers tend to pose as veterans and servicemembers in romance scams for the same reason, Goldsmith said.
“The American people are generally trusting of servicemembers,” he said. “They’re taking advantage of America’s trust in us.”
In addition, military service can be used as an excuse for scammers’ connectivity issues, the timing of their messages and delayed responses, the VVA report states. Many of the cybercrimes tend to originate from Nigeria by a group of scammers who call themselves the “Yahoo Boys.”
The New York Times, citing the FBI, reported there were nearly 18,500 complaints last year from victims of romance scams, with losses exceeding $362 million. The FBI told the Times that the bureau investigates only a fraction of those reports because the amounts lost – typically a few thousand dollars – are too low.
Reporting the impostors
When her profile first became popular, Vlastuin would find accounts using her name and photos, take screenshots and report them to Facebook and Instagram. As her online status grew, fighting the imitation accounts quickly became a full-time job.
“It would be a big deal to me,” Vlastuin said. “But I would go through them, and after a few hundred of these screenshots, I was like, ‘What am I doing? This is crazy.’”
Even estimating the number of accounts she’s reported would be difficult, Vlastuin said. She guessed it was about 500 accounts between both social media networks. Sometimes it would take weeks or longer than a month, but typically Instagram and Facebook responded by removing the accounts, she said.
Vlastuin has mostly given up reporting them now.
People who have been tricked by the impostor accounts continue to contact Vlastuin daily. About 75% of them figured out they were being scammed before sending money, Vlastuin said.
In one message she received last month, an Instagram user told her, “Your Instagram image is being abused. I am also the one who almost suffered.”
She previously replied to each person who messaged her, apologizing they were tricked. Sometimes, though, they would want the same relationship with her that they had developed with the scammer.
“It’s kind of hard, trying to explain to them that I don’t owe them anything,” Vlastuin said. “I say, ‘I’m sorry. I understand you’re a victim in all of this, but so am I.’”
Vlastuin has notified her unit and her Judge Advocate General officer about the problem, but no one has been able to do anything, she said.
The U.S. military is aware of the problem of cybercriminals posing as servicemembers in romance scams. Kim Joiner, a deputy assistant to the secretary of defense, told The New York Times her team works with Facebook to remove impostors.
“The problem is identifying them,” Joiner told the Times. “Once we identify them, I’m very satisfied with how Facebook reacts.”
The company works with the Department of Defense, as well as Blue Star Families and USAA, to help generate awareness about the issue and offer tips on identifying and reporting impostor accounts.
A Facebook spokesman said the social media network is also developing a new detection tool that would spot and remove accounts that look like some of the most frequently impersonated servicemembers and veterans, but the tool is still in the early stages of testing.
“Impostor accounts affect real people, and we remove these accounts when we discover them,” the spokesman said. “We’ve invested heavily in strengthening our technology to keep them off our services and we work with law enforcement to prosecute scammers. That job is not finished, and we are committed to sharing our progress.”
The issue has received attention from Capitol Hill.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., an Iraq War veteran and lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, is battling his own impostor accounts. He sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in July, calling his attention to cybercriminals posing as servicemembers.
“I am increasingly concerned by the prevalence of so-called ‘romance scams’ initiated or perpetrated via Facebook,” Kinzinger wrote. “I am particularly concerned with the pernicious efforts to impersonate current or former military personnel to gain the trust of unsuspecting users and ultimately convince them to transfer money.”
Besides financial harm on behalf of those tricked into sending money, the impersonated servicemembers are victims of stolen identities and stolen valor, Kinzinger wrote.
At times, the situation is embarrassing for Vlastuin. When people she knows search for her online, hundreds of pages appear, some of them with sexual or other explicit descriptions.
“They look at it, and it has inappropriate stuff on it, and it’s just kind of embarrassing to think somebody would think that was me,” she said. “I’ve found multiple profiles where people I know were following that profile and not my real one. They probably think that’s me posting.”
Goldsmith predicts more dangerous outcomes – the potential to weaken the national perception of veterans and servicemembers.
“If every time you get a friend request from someone wearing a uniform your assumption is that they’re a foreign entity, that’s not good for anyone,” he said.
Quitting social media and deleting her Instagram page often occurs to Vlastuin, especially because of the effects on her friends and family. Cybercriminals will use photos and stories of her mother, her niece and her friends. She’s stopped including other people in her posts.
Every time she creates a post, Vlastuin wonders whether it has any value other than being used to impersonate her.
She hopes to use her account, and her large number of followers, to inspire young women. In the message accompanying her post about graduating Air Assault School – the one that skyrocketed her Instagram fame – Vlastuin wrote, “I never thought that I would attempt this school, simply because I didn’t think I was physically capable of getting past even the first day and because I am absolutely terrified of failure. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder how many times this fear has held me back from things I could have potentially been great at.”
“I want to be there for young girls who want a role model, and I want to motivate people,” Vlastuin told Stars and Stripes. “I don’t feel like I’m accomplishing that with the way it’s going right now. It seems like I’m posting a picture just for it to be stolen.”
One of many imposter accounts on Instagram in which the users pose as Sherri Vlastuin, an Army combat medic based at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Because of her popularity on the social media network, cybercriminals have used her name and image to imitate her and engage in "romance scams."