South Carolina inmates are reportedly using a dating app and the threat of an underage porn charge to catfish and blackmail Army soldiers, leading to a multi-year Army investigation dubbed ‘Operation Surprise Party.’

According to an Army Criminal Investigation Command warrant submitted to a federal court on Oct. 3, a Department of Defense joint task force found that, starting in 2015, prisoners in the South Carolina Department of Corrections would pose as women “around the same age” as their targets, usually on the dating website PlentyOfFish, in order to lure military service members into sexually-charged text conversations.

 

After inducing their digital suitors into exchanging sexually explicit images, the prisoners would then “send a text message to the victim posing as the female’s father … [notifying] the victim that the female is under the age of 18.”

With targets sufficiently freaked out, the inmates would use the threat of law enforcement intervention to extract money from service members, so that victims agree to pay for various services.

“Often the victims will pay out of the fear that they will lose their careers as there are compounding issues of conduct unbecoming and the fear that the victim truly believes they are in possession of child pornography and/or involved in the distribution of child pornography,” the warrant states.

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A classic sextortion trap

While prisoners in the U.S. generally receive limited access to the internet during their incarcerations, a South Carolina Fox Affiliate reported back in 2016 that inmates in the SCDC system have previously used PlentyOfFish to form legitimate romantic relationships.

Army CID declined to comment on Operation Surprise Party, and as the Daily Beast reports, the Army has not announced any charges in the sextortion ring yet.

But as recently as this past April, CID had cautioned soldiers to be on guard for “sextortion scams” where criminals “use any dishonest method to make contact with potential victims and then attempt to blackmail them.”

“To avoid falling prey to a sextortionists never send compromising photos or videos of yourself to anyone, whether you know them or think you know them,” Special Agent Daniel Andrews, head of CID’s Computer Crime Investigative Unit, said in an Army release.

“These criminals will try to get unsuspecting service members to engage in online sexual activities and then demand money or favors in exchange for not publicizing potentially embarrassing information or turning them over to law enforcement”

Indeed, the CID alert appears to clearly reference the type of sextortion allegedly perpetrated by South Carolina inmates.

“If you meet a person on a legitimate online dating site there is very little chance that you are actually communicating with an underage person,” Andrews said in the statement. “It is therefore very unlikely that you sent or received child pornography or provided your images/videos to a minor.”

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