The Naval Criminal Investigative Service announced Wednesday it has wrapped phase one of an investigation into a “sextortion” scheme by South Carolina prison inmates that duped military service members out of more than $500,000.
The colorfully named “Operation Surprise Party” launched in January 2017, and found that more than 400 Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps members were schemed out of more than $560,000 by inmates posing as young women online.
The jailbirds – who had help from “outside civilian associates” – would pick their prey through social media and online dating sites, NCIS said in a news release.
They would then create fake profiles and online identities, luring the service members into romantic relationships and swapping photos.
Once the photos were exchanged, the prisoners would assume the role of the woman’s father, claiming she was underage and extorting the service members for money. Others would pose as police officers and demand money in exchange for not pursuing charges.
“Military members would then pay, fearful they might lose their careers over possessing what they were being led to believe was child pornography,” the release said.
U.S. District Attorney Sherri Lydon said 15 people have been indicted, while an additional 250 are still under investigation and may face prosecution pending further investigation into their involvement in the sick scheme.
The NCIS had help in their probe from the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, Army Criminal Investigation Common, Air Force Office of Special Investigations and several civilian law enforcement agencies.
“This despicable targeting of our brave service members will never be tolerated,” Andrew Traver, Director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, said in a statement. “We will not allow criminal networks to degrade the readiness of our military force. We were able to complete this first phase because of the excellent work by all our law enforcement partners, who are dedicated to helping protect our military service members. This operation will continue until we break the back of these criminal networks.”