A growing number of swindlers are posing as lonely US military men as part of a scam to lure women into sending them money and gifts online.
MINNEAPOLIS — GoodSoul87 said he was just looking for love, but it didn't take long for Debby Wadsworth to figure out he was after something else.
When she signed up for an online dating site called CountryMatch.com, the Maple Grove woman got an almost immediate hit from GoodSoul87. He described himself as a muscular 6-foot, 50-year-old nonsmoker, nondrinker from Georgia. He told her he was looking for a woman and, more important, a friend: "One to whom you can pour out all the contents of your heart."
They began an online correspondence that quickly got personal — and potentially costly.
If not for her suspicions, Wadsworth may have fallen victim to an increasingly common scam that has targeted thousands of women online: promises of love from American men serving in the military that turn out to be fake. While the courtship is all very real, the goal is not romance but money. The result is often heartache and financial hardship.
"They've perfected their crafts," said Chris Grey, a spokesman for the Army Criminal Investigation Division, which has investigated hundreds of complaints, particularly in the past three years. "Some of the emails I've seen, some of the love letters they write, they are very compelling arguments. People fall in love."
Who wouldn't have felt a tingle from the story of Staff Sgt. Ricky James?
When Debby first started corresponding with him in October 2012, his narrative was compelling. He was an open-minded person who accepts people as they are. Stationed with the United Nations on a peacekeeping mission in Iraq, he was in the Army Reserve doing dangerous explosive disposal work. He was about to retire and wanted to settle down with his soul mate, go on a long vacation and, later, start his charity project.
"I am an open book, so just ask me and I will answer OK Babe," he emailed her during one of their initial correspondences.
He asked for a computer, but she refused. He asked for an iPad. She refused. She did offer to send him a care package. He asked for Lacoste T-shirts (medium), sandals (size 10), a watch, pen drives and, of course, a picture of her in a big frame.
She sent him $20 worth of toiletries. He had suggested that the package be sent through a diplomat in Ghana to speed things up. When it got there, she got a call at 3 in the morning from the "diplomat" telling her he needed $100 to clear customs.
"He was always going into, 'We had a real dangerous day today. I hope you are praying for me.' Drama, drama, drama," she said. "He was as romantic as he could get. Within a week, he was supposedly smitten and in love with me. I'm not that stupid."
Wadsworth, a former member of the military herself, saw that things didn't add up. He wrote that he was a staff sergeant. But a picture of the chiseled-chin soldier showed that he was a first sergeant. She discovered that the unit he said he was assigned to was in the Air Force, not the Army.
Persistent and suspicious, she kept the correspondence going. At one point, she confronted him about the discrepancies in his rank.
He changed the subject and asked about her dog. She pointed out that he did not answer her question. He responded: "I am tired, how about if we discuss tomorrow."
Eventually she got the person on the other end of the connection to fess up.
He wasn't Ricky James, the blue-eyed Virgo portrayed on the website. He was Fofo "Nathanial" Babington, 26, unemployed from Accra, the capital of Ghana. Across the computer screen, he told her he was sorry. He said he would never do it again.
And then he suggested they continue their relationship.
"I played along because I just knew. I called him on it," she said. "From what I've read on the Internet, it's an acceptable occupation in Ghana. I got off easy."
It turns out the real person in the photo is a man named Stuart James. His picture and personal details could be one of the most frequently stolen in an online dating scam using the Army Reserve and other branches of the military as an entry point.
The Army's Criminal Investigation Division has been fielding thousands of calls from women who have done less due diligence than Wadsworth before they started wiring money. One woman lost $70,000. Another took out a second mortgage on her house.
Grey, the Army spokesman, said the fraudsters operate out of Internet cafes and backrooms, mostly in West Africa. Victims can report the theft to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, the Federal Trade Commission or local police.
"It's nearly impossible," he said. "I've seen literally hundreds and hundreds of victims. They are patriotic or sympathetic."
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