By Christopher Zoukis
The main federal prosecutor in South Carolina on November 28 announced that five inmates serving time in three different prisons in the state had been indicted for extortion and wire fraud in an elaborate hoax. The premise of the scam, the incarcerated fraudsters would use contraband cell phones to sign up with dating websites such as plentyoffish.com under female names and using photos of attractive young women they found online. Once on the website, the inmates would troll members of the U.S. military across the nation, engage in romantic banter, and eventually exchange intimate photos.
As soon as the military member sent that sort of selfie, another inmate presenting himself as a law enforcement officer or outraged father would confront the taken-in service member, telling him the girl was underage, and threatening to bring child pornography or other charges. Fearing that would jeopardize their military positions, their marriage or other relationship, or even bring a criminal prosecution, the military men would agree to make hush money payments, which averaged about $1,300 per victim. An investigator for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) characterized the scheme as “sextortion,” while in the non-criminal online world similar versions of the technique are sometimes known as “catfishing.”
According to the prosecutor announcing the charges, ten more people in North and South Carolina, mostly friends or relatives of the charged inmates, have been charged with aiding the inmates collect or launder about $560,000 in pay-offs through money transfer services like PayPal, Moneygram, and Western Union. Half of those were arrested in an early morning sweep; the other half were ordered to report to a court hearing the next day.
NCIS, as well as other federal military, tax, and law enforcement and state agencies have reportedly been looking into the scheme since January 2017, in what NCIS dubbed “Operation Surprise Party,” and says military and civilian investigations of the criminal scheme will continue until they “break the back” of the criminal networks. U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Sherri Lydon, who held a press conference outside the Broad River state prison in Columbia, said almost 450 service members from all military branches and diverse ranks were caught up in the scheme. NCIS says it’s looking into about 250 other persons engaged in suspicious online exchange or processing money transactions involving military soldiers to see if extortion, wire fraud or money laundering had occurred. If so, the guilty parties could face mandatory minimum sentences of 20 years in prison.
Both the U.S. Attorney and the director of the state Department of Corrections called prisoners’ contraband phones the most significant security threat within the South Carolina prison system since that allows inmates to continue criminal activity even while behind bars. The state corrections official, who blames inmate fights over contraband smartphones as contributing to a mid-April riot at one state prison in which seven inmates were killed (and live scenes of the rioting were posted to social media), has long tried to persuade the Federal Communications Commission to let him block cell signals around state prisons. Opposition from telecommunications firms has thus far stalled his request.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.