Marines fight romance scammers
No, ladies, Lt. Gen. John Toolan Jr. does not want to marry you. The Marine commander is not divorced, and he does not want you to send money to Panama.
Same story with retired Gen. John Allen, the former commander of international forces in Afghanistan, retired Gen. Ray Odierno, the former Army chief of staff, and countless other military leaders who are impersonated online by “evil twin” scammers.
An Australian woman named Margaret Clare contacted The San Diego Union-Tribune in December asking whether Toolan and his wife Helen had indeed split up, as she was led to believe.
She had doubts about her Skype honey who claimed he wanted her as “a relationship life partner.” Was he really a con artist seducing his “beautiful Queen” to scam her into sending money overseas?
When Margaret Clare realized it wasn’t Toolan on the other end of the line, she asked that the general be notified, “in the hope that there is a way to stop these people, whoever they are, from trying to destroy or even attempt to taint such a distinguished, honorable man who has been committed in achieving such exceptional success.
“He and his family should not be exploited in any way that would mark his extraordinary life,” she wrote in an email from Australia.
Toolan, the commanding general of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, confirmed in an email to the Union-Tribune that the “Toolans are good in Hawaii.” He thanked Margaret Clare for informing him of the latest scam in his name and said he would get his cyber team on it.
“It is crazy how much stuff is proliferated … Where do they get the time?” Toolan asked.
Marine Corps cyber warriors – who are worried about enemies trying to break much more than lonely hearts and bank accounts – can’t keep up with all the imposters.
Last week, a $79,000 contract to SNS Discovery Tool to develop an automated program that will identify and block fraudulent profiles, trolling social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Instagram, and YouTube.
Some 200 general officers and senior executives in the Marine Corps alone are vulnerable to the malicious postings, which “historically fluctuated from the hundreds to the thousands per week,” according to the solicitation from Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Va.
Cyber security staff from Headquarters Marine Corps have been manually crawling the sites to protect the reputation and privacy of their leaders, and to reduce attempts to penetrate the Marine network. The "evil twins" masquerading as generals fraudulently extort information and money on behalf of Marine Corps personnel, and they create malicious links for unsuspecting service members to access.
Army Gen. , the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was so concerned after finding more than 700 phony sites about himself that he posted a warning in March on Facebook: “there are individuals who copy the photos and comments from this page and create fake pages using my name to find romance and/or try to scam people out of money.”
Most of the illegitimate profiles appear to originate in Ghana and Nigeria. “My daughter is NOT doing volunteer work there,” Campbell said in the post. “I am happily married … I DO NOT use any dating sites, skype, google plus, yahoo messenger or any other account.”
The technology contract may help the Marine Corps police the Web. But it will never vanquish all the con artists who bank on public respect for the military to gain money, power, sex or simply ego-boosting attention.
Internet anonymity made it easier for people to pretend to be someone they are not, but stolen valor is nothing new. The unscrupulous or downright psychopathic who lack empathy for their victims have been posing as military heroes long before computers were invented.
In counterattack, online angels who administer the Facebook page or The Wall of Shame on A Soldier’s Perspective blog try to help by posting photos used and re-used to entrap victims. Often the images are small and grainy because they were taken from public pages without the knowledge of service members they portray.
Other props used to incite admiration, pity and affection so victims let their guard down include sob stories about exes, photos of adorable children and dogs, and dramatic tales of danger.
Women are usually targeted by the military romance scams, since the armed forces are mostly male. But men get catfished via technology, too.
Remember what happened to Chargers linebacker Manti Te’o when his girlfriend he met online died of leukemia? She turned out to be a man (still living, no cancer) who spoke in a feminine voice during hours-long phone conversations with the football player.
After the internet hoax was uncovered, Te’o said he suffered real pain and humiliation because of the fakery and lies of his suitor and his “sick” fantasy.
Occasionally, real-life service members use their rank or travels away from home to mislead people for personal gain – such as the adulterous submarine commander who faked his own death in 2012 to end an affair with a younger woman he met on a dating site.
More often, online characters claiming to be military brass, Navy SEALs, Delta force and the like are nothing of the kind.
Posing as even a lower-ranking soldier deployed in combat can be an effective ruse to elicit sympathy and income, as two unfortunate women discovered recently.
A struggling single mother from Houston was tricked into sending more than $44,000 to someone pretending to be a handsome Army captain in Afghanistan, KHOU 11 News reported this week. The money she sent her “soul mate” ended up in Nigeria, thanks to a second victim across country who was taken in by the same photo.
Don't fall for anyone who says "I love you" at warp speed, the TV station recommended on its Watching Out for You program.
Another tip, this one from a Marine investigator of sexual harassment complaints: “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
Listen to your instincts and be wary if details don’t add up, experts say. Is your officer wearing enlisted ranks in the photos, or vice versa? Does he speak and spell like a Marine general should?
Margaret Clare didn’t think so. She was already suspicious because her sweetheart’s answers didn’t track with what she knew from relatives serving in national defense. After several weeks of emailing, the lack of mental acuity in love letters from the "general" convinced her he was a swindler.
“The flow of writing in the emails was not consistent in displaying the intelligence that one would expect if in fact it was from the highly educated person being represented,” she said.
On Christmas Eve, she got an email from firstname.lastname@example.org saying “i know this is season of spending money may be you don't have enough presently , honey if you cant make it possible this period can you make it possible to raise the $3000 before 10/01/2015 ?”
He needed her support and silence, he said in the international language of philandering spouses, “because don't want any member of my family to know about my private my private life in Australia yet i have to do the right thing at the right time before informing my family hope you get me right?”
Luring her in with the promise of military retirement benefits as his future wife, the fake Toolan said: “Margeret remember that our marriage should be January when i come to Australia because our marriage Certificate will be present to my office before my retirement.”
Margaret Clare didn’t realize that the photo her pen pal included on his “Gen.John” Skype account was actually one of Allen lifted from the Internet, not Toolan.
Neither General John needed cash from her. Thankfully, Margaret Clare didn’t send any, she said.