Military Email Scam Exposed

Contributor Dr. Rob D’Ovidio, an Assistant Professor at Drexel University’s Criminal Justice Program, shows NBC10 some characteristics of email scams.

The email from Bill Betterman seeking assistance to get money out of Iraq is a classic example of the advance-fee-fraud scheme. The advance-fee fraud scheme has been made popular by the Nigerian 419 scam variant and finds its roots in the Spanish Prisoner scheme of the late 1800s.

We have seen a number of advance-fee-fraud variants with a military theme.

Some of the common variants to advance-fee fraud schemes that we see in the email example you provided:

- Offender asks victim not to disclose the proposed transaction to anyone (in your email example, he states that he could lose his job if anyone finds out).

- Offender chooses methods to communicate that provide anonymity and that are difficult to trace back. They often use free email accounts with which the provider does not authenticate subscriber information. The transaction will likely include fax exchanges at one point when the offender will use a relay service to help cover his/her tracks.

- Frequent causes of victim’s financial losses:
1) The offender will make multiple requests that the victim wire money to offender to cover a number of alleged transaction expenses (e.g. bribes to local officials or customs agents in the offender's locale, wire transfer fees associated with wiring money to victim, and handling fees). 
2) The offender will ask the victim to wire money as a sign of good faith so the offender knows he can trust the victim with the money that he allegedly will wire him/her.
3) The offender will eventually ask the victim to send his/her bank account information to the offender so that he knows where and how to wire the money promised in the scam. Once the victim stops paying the alleged transaction expenses (as listed under #1 above), the offender will likely start draining the victim’s bank account using the account information provided by the victim. This process could include creating counterfeit checks to be drawn on the victim's account.

- The offender will ask the victim to use a service like Western Union to wire funds to cover transaction expenses (as explained above) because of the impossibility of reversing the transferred funds once they have been sent. Additionally, the offender can pick up the funds without having to show identification (he/she only needs to the present transaction identifier to pick up the funds). Wire transfer of funds is preferred over other methods (e.g. postal money order) because of the speed at which the transferred funds can be obtained.

- The military variant appeals to the support U.S. citizens hold for our enlisted servicemen and servicewomen. Thus, offenders look to take advantage of this support and the trust we place in our military personnel. We have also seen variants of the advance-fee fraud scheme that take advantage of the charitable nature of U.S. citizens. These include schemes with the following charitable themes: AIDS, cancer, and Hurricane Katrina). There have also been variants that take advantage of the trust a person places in romantic partners/interests. The offender, usually a male, lures vulnerable women through online dating sites and cultivates the relationship (online) to the point at which the offender begins asking the victim for money. The money will allegedly pay for the offender’s travel expenses to see the victim.

Advance-fee fraud schemes accounted for approximately 10% (9.8% exactly) of the complaints made to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) during 2009. This kind was the third most frequently reported type of fraud made during 2009 (passing even identity theft - which was 4th with 8.2%). The median loss per victim of advance fee fraud that started when the victim was first contacted via the Internet was $3,000 (Internet Crime Complaint Center, 2004).

Aside from teaching, Dr. D’Ovidio also directs Drexel’s research program in computer crime and digital forensics. His research and teaching interests lie in the intersection of computer technology, crime, and the criminal justice system. Rob received his Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from Temple University.

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