SALT LAKE CITY — A national trend in online scammers impersonating members of the armed services has prompted the Utah National Guard to issue a warning of caution in online transactions.
Maj. Bruce Roberts, a spokesman for the Utah National Guard, said he gets a call each month — one as recently as Monday — where someone is fraudulently portraying themselves as a Guard member online. Usually, he said, a seller will be offering an incredible deal on a car on websites like Craigslist or KSL.com, saying they're willing to discount the price for a rushed transaction before they're deployed overseas.
He said the sellers provide false contact information and use untraceable email addresses for correspondence. They have also been known to create elaborate and convincing backstories, sometimes using the identities of active servicemen.
"We've seen that same scam perpetuate over and over," Roberts said. "We haven't had any luck with who's trying to do this."
While the car scam is the most common in Utah — or at least the one most frequently reported to the Utah National Guard — false servicemen and servicewomen have become increasingly common in spam emails and so-called "romance scams" on social networking and dating sites. Former Miss Utah and National Gaurdswoman Jill Stevens has had her identity used several times.
"I think the vehicle scam is an easier one to pull," Roberts said. "If someone is claiming to be a member of the Utah National Guard and offering a great deal and it seems fishy, they should definitely call us."
Stevens, who now works at Primary Children's Medical Center after finishing her term with the Utah National Guard, said she first became aware of people using her identity last year. In the beginning it was relatively harmless Facebook profiles. But in the last two months, she said multiple men have contacted her, heartbroken, who were under the impression that they were in an online relationship with her.
"I feel horrible how they're using me," Stevens said. "I really feel sick."
Initially, she said she hated that the profiles' poor grammar gave the impression that she was unintelligent. When the scams became more serious, however, she said she was offended that someone would use her time in the military, which was motivated by a desire to do good, for deception.
"It's crazy how people are doing these scams and trying to get some benefit out of the lives we've lived," Stevens said. Other people she served with have also had their identities used. None of the scam victims who contacted her had reached a point where they were asked for money.
Nationally, there has been a rise in military romance scams, where a relationship is developed online and in time the scammer requests money for help with their expenses. Often, scammers will use photographs, service history and background information of actual servicemen and servicewomen in creating their persona. After establishing a relationship, the scammer will say they need help paying a fee to apply for things like leaves of absence to visit or to have the ability to make phone calls from where they are stationed.
Springville resident Art Deyo said, at least for his inbox, the soldier with money is the new Nigerian prince. He said over the past five years he's received around 25 different emails from fictitious soldiers overseas who need help laundering their discovered millions or are requesting donations for the treatment of their injuries. Even though he recognizes them immediately as scams, he said he often plays along, "scamming the scammer."
"It drives my wife crazy but I'll go along with the scam the whole time," he said.
Deyo admits that it's entertaining to see the lengths scammers will go to when they think he's interested — from excessive correspondence to mailing bogus checks to prove their story. But he also said that by stringing them along, he hopes they have less time to target more vulnerable individuals.
"They only need one sucker," Deyo said.
Roberts said that because of the respect and admiration that people feel for those who serve in the armed services, they're more willing to enter into a transaction sight-unseen than they normally would be.
"That's the real tragedy here," he said. "People are preying on other people's inherent patriotism."
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