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Hundreds of servicemembers targeted by prison inmates in sextortion ring

This April 16, 2018 file photo shows the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C. A review by The Associated Press has found prisoners who kill other prisoners behind bars in South Carolina often face little additional punishment. Prosecutors won convictions in 18 of 26 closed cases involving the deaths of inmates at the hands of fellow prisoners in the past 20 years. State agents are still investigating the deaths of seven inmates during an April riot at Lee Correctional Institution. No charges have been filed yet.

SEAN RAYFORD/AP PHOTO, FILE

By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 28, 2018

WASHINGTON — Five people were arrested and five prisoners served summonses Wednesday for their roles in a sextortion ring in which inmates from South Carolina used online dating sites and social media forums to target hundreds of servicemembers and coerce more than $500,000 from them, Naval Criminal Investigative Services announced.

NCIS spokesperson Jeff Houston said the sextortion ring was based out of multiple prison facilities in South Carolina, but he would not identify which ones.

The arrests and summonses for money laundering, extortion and wire fraud were part of the first phase of Operation Surprise Party, which was initiated January 2017, according a NCIS news release. Defense Criminal Investigative Service, Army Criminal Investigation Command and Air Force Office of Special Investigations participated in the NCIS investigation, along with other local and federal law enforcement agencies.

NCIS officials did not identify the people charged in the ring.

With help from people outside of prison, the inmates found and targeted servicemembers online by engaging in fictional romantic relationships and then extorting them for money, according to NCIS.

Posing as women on the dating and social media sites, the inmates exchanged photos with the servicemembers, and then pretended to be the woman’s father, saying she was underage. They would also pretend to be law enforcement or authority figures who would ask for money in exchange for not pressing charges, according to the NCIS release.

“Military members would then pay, fearful they might lose their careers over possessing what they were being led to believe was child pornography,” the release stated.

Houston said NCIS “cannot speak to why the servicemembers were targeted.”

The ring extorted more than $560,000 from 442 servicemembers across the United States in the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, according to the release.

"This despicable targeting of our brave servicemembers will never be tolerated," Director Andrew Traver of Naval Criminal Investigative Service said in a prepared statement. "We will not allow criminal networks to degrade the readiness of our military force.”

More than 250 other people are also being investigated for involvement in the ring and could face charges.

"With nothing more than smartphones and a few keystrokes, South Carolina inmates along with outside accomplices victimized hundreds of people," Daniel Andrews, director of the Computer Crime Investigative Unit of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, said in a prepared statement.

Col. Kirk B. Stabler of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations said: "Sexual extortion is a global crime that evolves as quickly as social media technology, if not faster.”

Servicemembers who believe they are being targeted by sextortion or see suspicious activity online are asked to contact their local Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Army Criminal Investigation Command or Air Force Office of Special Investigations office.

Kenney.Caitlin@stripes.com
Twitter: @caitlinmkenney

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