Online scams target lonely hearts with troops’ photos
By Abbie Boudreau, Emily Probst and Jessi Joseph, CNN Special Investigations
July 28, 2010 — Updated 1935 GMT (0335 HKT)
Jasonville, Indiana (CNN) — Last Christmas, Stacey Chapman hung a stocking, anxiously awaiting the homecoming of the all-American soldier she had met online and planned to marry.
But he never came home. After some research, Chapman discovered the 20-year-old blond in fatigues pictured in the online dating profile, Spc. Brian Browning, had died in Iraq three years ago. And the man she had been e-mailing and chatting with for the last six months, who went by the name “Christain Browning,” was really a scammer posing as an American soldier.
“He made me believe he was falling for me, that he was completely in love with me, that he was a soldier over there defending our country,” said Chapman, a recently separated mother of two. “I think I had a big red flag on me that said, ‘very lonely, very vulnerable.’”
Chris Grey, a spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, told CNN his division has received hundreds of complaints of scammers using the photos of U.S. soldiers in dating and social websites in the last year. CNN has learned the scammers have used photos of both living and dead troops, including high-ranking Army officials and even generals assigned to the Pentagon.
Many of the soldiers are fighting overseas, unaware that their photos — stolen off the web — are being used unless they’re contacted by the duped victims. But often, as in the case of Stacey Chapman, the impostor uses a variation on the soldier’s name, making the real soldier hard to find.
A broken-hearted Chapman lost more than $1,200 that she sent via Western Union for what she thought was his plane ticket home. And while the financial hit hurt, it didn’t compare to the emotional toll.
“What a lowlife he was, trying to actually portray a soldier that had died in the war,” Chapman said. “I had fallen for him, and he had ran with it and taken me for not only my money, (but) my heart.”
Grey said the military can’t do anything to stop the scam because U.S. soldiers aren’t the perpetrators. The best solution, he said, is to get the word out.
Master Sgt. C.J. Grisham, a military blogger and active-duty soldier, is doing just that. Grisham receives up to 10 emails a day from victims duped by the scammers. Through his blog, http://www.soldiersperspective.us, he warns unsuspecting victims and soldiers and tracks the scammers, who he said are likely based in western Africa.
Grisham said the scheme often starts out small. After capturing the attention of a woman online with a fake profile of a man in uniform, the scam artist teases the victim with chocolates, flowers and teddy bears. Soon after sending the gifts, the impostor starts asking for money to pay for Internet or phone service. From there, the money requests grow.
“Love is such a powerful emotion. Loyalty or patriotism is a very powerful emotion. And people do a lot of stupid stuff in the name of love and in the name of patriotism,” Grisham said.
CNN contacted the Browning family in Astoria, Oregon, after learning that the photo of their fallen son had been used in the online romance scam. Spc. Brian Browning’s father, Perry Browning, didn’t take the news lightly.
“It makes me madder now more than anything, because some scumbag is using my son’s good name and honor to pillage women,” Browning said.
Browning’s father had a message for Stacey Chapman, the woman who planned to marry his “son.” The real Brian Browning was a loving son and a caring and funny character, he said.
“She fell in love with a nice picture of a young man. My son was a worthy person. He was worth falling in love with,” Browning said. Chapman is “every much a victim in this as my son Brian was,” he added.
“This guy is just trying to make a buck off of everybody’s heart. Crappy bastard,” he said.