Criminal Justice

Prison inmates indicted in sextortion ring that targeted military service members

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Five prison inmates and 10 of their associates have been indicted in a sextortion ring in which they allegedly posed as women online and then as angry fathers demanding money.

The ring targeted military service members found through dating websites and social media platforms, report the Herald, the Army Times, and the Post and Courier. The scheme cost 442 service members from across the country more than $560,000 in financial loss, according to a press release by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, one of the investigating agencies.

The inmates, all from South Carolina, and the 10 people accused of helping them are charged with money laundering, extortion and wire fraud conspiracy. More than 250 additional people are being investigated and could face future prosecution.

Officials detailed the scheme at a press conference on Wednesday. The inmates allegedly carried out the scheme with cellphones that had internet connections. First, the inmates would pose as young women interested in dating. Next, they would send nude photos found online to service members who responded. Then, the prisoners would call the targeted service member and pretend to be an angry father or police officer who said the women were underage.

At that point, the service member would be told that charges wouldn’t be pursued if money is paid. A “money mule” would receive money for the inmates and transfer it into a JPay account, a payment processing system used by inmates, according to the Army Times.

U.S. Marshal Thomas Griffin said he hopes the indictments will persuade federal officials to allow the blocking of cellphone signals in prisons. Cellphones are smuggled into prisons, tossed over wire fences into prison yards, or dropped in by drones, according to the Post and Courier. “The technology exists to make these cellphones nothing more than paperweights in a cell block,” Griffin said.

The investigation is called Operation Surprise Party.

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