Military members’ social media photos are being used in efforts to scam Americans out of money, according to a report released on Tuesday from Vietnam Veterans of America.
The almost 200-page report notes a range of attempts to target servicemembers online, including foreign efforts to promote the “Vets for Trump” Facebook page, Russian hackers making terroristic threats against military families and use of pictures of soldiers in so-called “romance scams,” in which scammers take on false identities and then seek to swindle their victims out of money.
The report said that romance scams, which the Federal Trade Commission said accounted for more lost money in 2018 than any other type of consumer fraud, often target “older, lonely Americans who are relatively new to social media and the internet.” The FBI said it received 18,000 complaints about romance fraud in 2018 — an increase of more than 70 percent from 2017 — and that victims lost over $362 million in such scams.
The profiles of military personnel are among those being used in the deceptions. Staff Sergeant Sherri Vlastuin is an Instagram influencer with over 36,500 followers. The Vietnam Veterans of America report said that “scores” of social media accounts have stolen Vlastuin’s identity.
Stars and Stripes reported that some individuals who have been deceived by accounts imitating Vlastuin’s subsequently contact the staff sergeant and expect repayment.
The report offers additional evidence about the prevalence and pervasiveness of such romance scams, adding to past reporting on the topic. On Tuesday, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that three men had been charged with swindling a central Kentucky woman out of $757,000 in a romance scam.
But the report also details the boldness of certain acts of attempted swindling.
Patrick Murphy, who formerly served as the Under Secretary of the Army and a Pennsylvania representative, has had his identity stolen for a romance scam, according to the report. So have Lee Zeldin, a Republican representative from New York, and Adam Kinzinger, a Republican representative from Illinois.
The report also provided evidence of attempts from foreign-based individuals to interfere in the 2020 election, marking a continuation of the spread disinformation that plagued the 2016 contest and led to a series of Congressional hearings. It said that individuals in Macedonia, which it described as a “hotbed for fake-news websites and plagiarized misinformation that targets Americans,” had created posts about Democratic presidential candidates including former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, the two Democratic frontrunners, among other potential nominees.
While speaking before Congress in July, Robert Mueller raised concerns about election interference, warning of Russian meddling in the 2020 contest.