Being the target of scammers is just one of the trade-offs that come with serving in uniform — from identity theft to unscrupulous off-base car salesmen pitching slick rides with 40% APR. Sham-proofing your life is a hard-learned lesson for many enlistees early on in their service.
But grifters have switched up the game, and now the combat boot is on the other foot. In order to tap into a well of patriotic sympathy and support for the military, some scammers are now impersonating troops — not the rank and file, but four-star generals.
That’s what happened to Phyllis Lindsey, a 70-year-old widow from Edmond, Oklahoma, who was tricked out of more than $225,000 by someone posing as a U.S. Army general stationed in Syria, according to the Associated Press. It turned out to be a catfishing scam, which involves developing a romantic relationship online through a fake identity before bilking the mark for a large sum of money.
Lindsey was contacted by a man claiming to be “Gen. Lester Holmes,” via Facebook in August; shortly after sliding into her DMs, a “romance happened really fast,” she told the Oklahoman.
“He introduced himself on Facebook and he was very polite, very nice,” Lindsey, who was widowed two years ago, told Oklahoma City News9. As the online relationship grew, the two graduated from Facebook messages to texts.
“He was telling me anything to get me to like him,” Lindsey said.
That’s when the pitch came: The “general” claimed he was leaving the military and retiring to Oklahoma, but was stuck in Syria without access to his discharge papers. Not wanting to alert the Pentagon that he’d lost them, he enlisted her help and convinced Lindsey to send him $350,000 to help retrieve his lost items.
The FBI is currently investigating the fraud, but according to an affidavit obtained by the AP, Lindsey made four wire transfers to the “general” in October, under the assumption that the funds would be used to pay for the delivery of luggage containing the man’s money and discharge papers. She was also told that the money would be paid back, with interest, and the aforementioned luggage would have $2.8 million inside.
No luggage ever arrived, but fortunately for Lindsey, the fourth transfer was stopped cold after her son realized she was being scammed. The final transfer, for $100,000, was recovered in December from an Atlanta bank, AP reports.
As for the four-star con artist? “I would like to choke him. I really would,” Lyndsey told News9. “It’s embarrassing. It’s upsetting, but if I hide and don’t ever talk about it, someone else could be caught in the same thing.”
It may be more common than you think; if you want an example of what this looks like, here’s an email I received in September from a person claiming to be Gen. Lori Robinson, one of two four-star female generals in the United States Air Force, and the first to hold a top-tier combat command.
Fortunately, I’m happily married.
For those hoping to avoid being duped by a con-artist claiming to rock a galaxy on their collar, here’s some advice: If you do get an out-of-the-blue email from a person claiming to be a high-ranking officer in the United States military; if they immediately launch into a poorly worded pick-up spiel; mix up the gender of the message’s recipient; and claim that you emailed them first, when you didn’t… you may as well just assume you’re conversing with a (recently promoted) Nigerian prince.