Jane Watts became suspicious when the Army officer she friended on Facebook started asking for things.
The Charlottesville resident, who had recently separated from her husband, accepted a friend request from a soldier named Jeff Galbraith. He seemed nice online, and it offered the chance to meet someone new.
“He kept sending me pictures,” she said, “and I would ask him questions like, ‘where are you from?’ But he would never answer my questions.”
After two months, he asked for a care package to make life easier in Syria, where he was stationed. He wanted blankets, candy, a PS3, deodorant, a toothbrush and other things.
Wait. A PS3, as in a Play Station 3 game system?
“I’m not buying no damn PS3,” she recalled thinking. “I can’t afford it.”
Instead, she bought the other items at the Dollar Store and sent along a more reasonable care package, minus a video game console. Jeff Galbraith wanted more.
“Then he started asking for money, and I said, ‘oh no, this ain’t right.’ ”
The relationship fell apart after a story appeared in the Daily Press on June 25, 2016, headlined “Productive tenure for outgoing chief.”
It told the story of Col. Bill Galbraith, who had spent three years at Fort Eustis in Newport News and was now on his way to Germany. Col. Galbraith is still serving there and attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
The real Bill Galbraith looked an awful lot like the Jeff Galbraith who had friended Watts on Facebook — that guy stuck in Syria with a thing for video games.
“I about died,” Watts said.
After the story appeared, she emailed Jeff and asked about his new command in Germany. He wrote back to say the Eustis commander was his brother.
“Then ask him for money,” she shot back. “He’s got more money than me.”
Watts backed out in time, but others don’t.
Facebook trickery takes many forms, but military romance scams have a particularly insidious quality in places such as Hampton Roads. Scammers prey on the affection and dedication for soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines, especially those in dangerous corners of the world.
They prey on respect and patriotism, and on loneliness. Scammers have a logistical advantage, too. They are always “deployed” and have a built-in excuse to never meet in person.
“We’ve been combating this for probably five years now,” said Chris Grey, chief of public affairs for U.S. Criminal Investigation Command (CID) based at Quantico. “I took it on personally because it’s just heart-wrenching in talking to some of the victims.”
The Army does not log the number of calls it gets about romance scams. There are simply too many.
“We get hundreds and hundreds of calls Army-wide about this,” Grey said. “Myself, at my desk, I probably get three a week.”
The hardest come from people who have fallen in love with a fraudster and can’t accept the truth.
“I’ve had countless — been chewed out by people, tried to talk to them, they’ve called back numerous times,” Grey said. “I’ve had a few of them call back later and apologize when they find out what the truth is, but they’re so tied up with their emotions that they wanted to believe it was real.”
Because the perpetrators aren’t in the military, Army CID lacks the jurisdiction to investigate. Instead it refers victims to FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Robert Cochran is the FBI supervisory special agent in charge of Norfolk’s Norfolk’s Cyber Crime and Transnational Organized Crime programs.
The FBI has had some success in tracking down romance scammers who operate out of places such as Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. Investigating the cases often begins with a victim coming forward, then authorities follow the money out of the country.
Often, Cochran said, it is easier to identify the fraudster than extraditing that person to face American justice.
In some cases, romance scam victims are used as unwitting “money mules” to transfer funds to others. These people have agreed to open up their bank accounts or provide account information, and they will receive money and forward it onto another party.
Here’s how that might work: A victim sends a scammer $3,000. The scammer sends back $10,000, tells the victim to keep the $3,000 and forward another $7,000 to a “friend.”
“So the victim thinks the scammer is legit,” Cochran said. “He’s paying back what the victim paid out, and asking to send additional money on to take care of other debts. But in fact, it’s another scheme.”
Kathy Waters, who lives in California, watched as her mother’s friend was scammed out of $35,000 by someone purporting to be an Army officer.
She was determined to investigate further. Studying the photos used by the scammer, she saw the soldier’s last name appeared to be Denny. That eventually led her to retired Army Col. Bryan Denny, who lives in Williamsburg.
“Bryan had been dealing with it for about six months prior to me contacting him,” she said. “He was telling me about the different accounts he knew of.”
For Denny, it started in mid-2015 when a woman wrote to him. She was expecting him to visit after he finished his tour in Syria. Denny didn’t know the woman and had never been to Syria.
But this wasn’t just a simple mistake. The woman really thought she knew a Bryan Denny who looked just like him.
That’s when Denny decided to search for himself on Facebook. He discovered more than 100 accounts with his personal photos attached to different names.
He was Gervas Wilson from Jersey City, N.J., Maxwell Herrick from Syria, and Denny Benson from points unknown.
One fraudster superimposed Denny’s photo onto an image of a New York state driver’s license.
Bryan Denny held glasses of wine, shook hands with Army officers and posed with friends in different states and around the country. One photo might have been taken at Fort Monroe in Hampton.
He was everywhere.
“At first,” Denny said, “it was kind of unnerving when you realize this is going on, and you see your picture with different names. It’s a bit overwhelming, and then you kind of dig in and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to fight this and report all these things.”
Since first meeting Denny, whose story was chronicled in Task & Purpose, Waters said they found more than 2,500 fake accounts with his information. One fake Denny solicited a Pennsylvania woman who agreed to speak to the Daily Press on condition she not use her real name, due to concerns about security.
We’ll call her Jennifer.
“Over a year ago, I was on Facebook, and of course this gentleman popped up,” she said. “I talked to him a little bit and we became friends. He was telling me he was on his way over to Afghanistan. I was like, wow, we don’t have too many men like you here.”
They kept talking, and weeks turned into months. Several months later, he asked for money to get home. She wanted to do some research, but he persisted.
“He gave me a contact where I could send the money, and, like a fool, I did,” she said. “Then it was like, I need more, I need more. I ended up sending him probably close to $4,000.”
Meanwhile, she was asking questions online about her friend, who identified himself as Denny. Jennifer ended up contacting a woman in Tennessee who had been talking to the same man.
Jennifer wanted to know more. She continued talking to the man, and he said his name wasn’t Denny, but Bryan Denny. She eventually found the real Bryan Denny in Williamsburg, who promptly told her she was being scammed.
“I thought that, but in my heart, I really didn’t want to feel that,” Jennifer said. “At the time, me and my husband were having problems. I wanted a friend to talk to, and of course, I fell for his dumb stuff. It broke my heart because I really, really liked this guy. He was always pleasant. He told women what they wanted to hear.”
Denny steered her toward Waters, who was compiling stories on victims. The two women talked at length. Jennifer credits Waters for helping to raise her spirits.
“It took a toll on me for a while because I fell for someone like that and it was pure stupidity,” she said. “I’m back on track now and doing fine.”
Looking back, Jennifer noticed things she hadn’t before. Her profile picture that caught the attention of the scammer had come from a wedding.
“I had on a V-neck type dress and I looked like I probably had money,” she said. “I do believe that’s why he targeted me.”
He sometimes told conflicting stories. When she pressed him to clarify, he would say his head was “messed up” because he was overseas and it was hot and he was living with a bunch of guys. Jennifer said the scammer targeted her at a particularly vulnerable time.
“After 28 years of marriage, things kind of go different ways,” she said.
The scammer “told me things that were always sweet and how much he would like to meet me, how pretty I was, how nice I was. He would tell me stories about the war and things that were going on. I felt so bad for him, being in that situation, that I wanted to do whatever I could to make life easier for him and make him feel better. At the same time, he was making me feel more like a woman.”
It might be tempting to dismiss Jennifer and others as gullible. After all, you shouldn’t give money to strangers.
Cochran, the FBI special agent, has a more nuanced view.
“It’s easy to parse them off and say, ‘oh, they’re just dumb. They deserve what they get. They fell for it,’ whatever,” he said. “But these are real victims. You’re playing on people’s emotions here. They’re in love. When you go and break the news to these folks and you get to see it, it’s heartbreaking.”
Cochran said he isn’t condemning the idea of online dating. It’s a legitimate, helpful space for people who want to avoid bars or other face-to-face meetups.
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“But like everything else on the internet, you have to look out for criminal behavior,” he said. “The internet has largely been criminalized in every aspect. It’s kind of ‘buyer beware.’ ”
Grey says romance scammers have polished their routines over the years. When women like Jennifer and Jane Watts hear things that sound pleasing on the surface, that’s no accident.
“You can see they have refined their techniques and tactics over the years,” he said. “I almost equate to a call center, where they have briefing cards on what to say next. Some of their notes are very nice, very articulate, and they play on their emotions.”
The military aspect of the relationship makes it even more tempting.
“They trust people in the military, that they’re good, upstanding people, that the vast majority of them are honest and do the right thing,” Grey said.
He thinks the Army is making progress in educating the public and those within its own ranks. The calls that came to him used to focus on “soldiers” who had stolen their money. More and more, callers want to know if the soldier really exists.
“Unfortunately, there are people out there who just won’t listen,” he said. “They go online and fall in love.”