ONLINE SCAM WARNING
Members of the public often hold military service in high regard, and have a great deal of trust and respect for service members. Unfortunately, sophisticated online scammers exploit this trust by impersonating military personnel. There are three scams, in particular, that frequently use scripts referencing military service members allegedly assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord - romance scams, auto sales scams, and advance fee scams.
Online scammers operate a variety of fake dating site and social media profiles in an effort to establish an emotional bond - often of a romantic nature - with people they later exploit for financial gain. Many scammers are based overseas but still have access to phones, credit cards, or mailing addresses inside the United States.
Scammers pose as a "lonely heart" who is living or working overseas and reaches out via social media, email, or in response to a dating site advertisement and attempts to establish an online friendship. Sometimes, the scammer pretends to be a U.S. service member. Over time, the correspondence becomes more frequent and the correspondent claims they feel a deep connection with the victim, despite having never met.
Once the victim conveys they have feelings for the scammer, the scammer may test the relationship by sending gifts or asking for small favors. Eventually, he or she initiates plans to meet the victim. Those plans are inevitably derailed by an unexpected crisis that requires the victim's money to resolve (for example, the scammer claims to need money to purchase a permit before he or she is authorized to travel, their credit card suddenly stops working mid-trip, or he or she claims to be stranded en route in a hotel, hospital, or police station and unable to leave until a large bill or fine is paid).
Scammers often use the real photos (and sometimes names) of actual service members, along with a variety of faked documents are used to support the scammer's claims, and JBLM is regularly contacted by individuals who suspect they are being scammed, trying to recover money lost in a scam, or seeking to identify the "real" person depicted in photos used by the scammer to inform them of the theft.
Learn more: The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) has more information about "military romance scams" here: http://www.cid.army.mil/romancescam.html
Used Car Scams
The scammer claims to have a car for sale, and that the car is in storage at the base while serving overseas. The car is often advertised outside the local area (or the scammer pretends to be unavailable to meet with local prospective buyers due to military obligations).
The vehicle is usually highly desirable - it may be a collector's item, or it may be offered at below "blue book" value. The scammer often claims the lower-than-expected price is because they are under some pressure to sell the vehicle quickly, such as to relieve financial pressure related to a personal situation or an upcoming deployment.
The scammer frequently sweetens the deal by claiming he or she can arrange shipping at low- or no- cost through the military, and by promising the buyer can inspect the vehicle upon delivery at no risk to themselves by using a 3rd party service with a "money back guarantee." As with romance scams, any links or emails provided by the scammer are usually forged, and designed to capture the victim's personal information. In some cases, the seller will then claim to experience problems with the transaction, and ask that the money be wired to them directly, allowing them to cash in twice.
Learn more: JBLM's Northwest Guardian ran an article describing a fraudulent used car sales scam ad that references the base in 2012. The scammers are still out there, using the same script. The fraudulent ads have appeared on many internet sites and also printed as newspaper classified ads: http://www.nwguardian.com/2012/02/23/12325/car-deals-too-good-to-be-true.html
COUNTERFEIT CHECK Fraud
In this scam, the victim is the seller of a vehicle or another high-value item, which the scammer claims to be interested in purchasing. He or she may pose as a service member who is unable to inspect the item in person while serving overseas.
The scammer sends a cashier's check made out for more than the agreed upon sale amount, and requests a refund for the overage. The check is forged - the check may use actual routing and account numbers and money initially appears as a credit in the victim's account - but that money disappears when the bank discovers the account it was drawn on does not exist. By the time the fraud is discovered, the victim has already "refunded" money to the seller and shipped the item - losing both.
If someone you have not met in person asks for money online:
DO NOT WIRE MONEY. Money send by wire service can be claimed by anyone, in any part of the world. You will not be able to reverse the transaction or recover your funds once collected by the scammer. Any 3rd party "escrow services" touted by scammers are typically operated using fake websites or email - sometimes designed to resemble those of real companies. Do not use these services - they are not real, and exist only to steal your financial information.
DO NOT PURCHASE VISAS, LEAVE PAPERS, TRAVEL PERMITS, OR OTHER PAPERWORK. Service members do not incur any costs in using their authorized leave, except personal travel expenses. Travel to and from the United States on official business is provided by the government, as is travel to and from the U.S. during mid-tour leave during deployments. No-cost "Space-A" (space available) flights may also be available to service members travelling on leave or due to a personal emergency.
IF SOMEONE SENDS A CHECK AND REQUESTS A REFUND OF ANY PORTION OF IT, DO NOT DEPOSIT IT. Your bank may intially credit your account, but the funds will be removed once the bank determines the check is fraudulent (usually within a few days, but it could be as long as a few weeks).
IF STRANDED OVERSEAS, U.S. CITIZENS SHOULD CONTACT THE NEAREST EMBASSY. Many scams are designed to play on the victim's emotions. In rare cases, the scammer may even impersonate an actual family member. If you cannot authenticate a family member's identity online or by phone, the U.S. State Dept. embassy or local consulate in their location can help by holding the funds until the citizen provides positive identification to them - see their website for more information.
REMEMBER: U.S. SERVICE MEMBERS HAVE MANY FORMS OF EMERGENCY FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE SERVICES AVAILABLE TO THEM. The Army Emergency Relief Fund, Air Force Aid Society, and Navy and Marine Corps Relief Society provide financial grants and no-interest loans to service members experiencing financial hardship. During deployments, mid-tour leave typically includes the cost of travel back to the U.S. Service members may even be able to request an advance on their future pay in an emergency. The service member's chain of command or military agencies such as JBLM's Armed Forces Community Service is able to assist them in accessing these services, they do not need financial assistance from strangers.
Many scammers are based overseas. If you are scammed, it is very unlikely U.S. law enforcement officials will be able to recover your money.
The best way to protect yourself is not to send money to anyone you don't know (and to verify the identity of anyone you do know before sending funds).