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Warnings against soldier scams

October 5, 2010 11:29:06 AM PDT
The U.S. Army is concerned about a growing internet scam where con men pretend to be American soldiers overseas looking for love.

Eyewitness News spoke to a Long Island woman who was targeted and lost all of her savings.

"These are the pictures he sent. I have to tell you, this is the one that really got my heart going because I really do cherish our soldiers," Joan Romano, a scam victim said.

Joan Romano says she fell hard and fast for the fantasy, believing the man in these photos was a U.S. serviceman.

She claims he contacted her through the dating website Match.com and then wooed her with sweet words and promises of a future.

"He said he was in the U.S. Amy, a staff sergeant in Afghanistan. I told him I want to see a picture of him in Afghanistan and this is what I got," Romano said.

She was smitten with hero worship and was a vulnerable target.

She'd worked at the World Trade Center, but called in sick on 9/11 and been spared, so when the man calling himself Sgt. Austin Newman asked her to set up a Yahoo account, she did.

She says he then asked her to buy him a laptop.

"He said if he had his own he'd be able to contact me more," Romano said.

"Did you ask what regiment, what battalion he was in?" Eyewitness News asked.

"I did, and he replied only that he was a soldier in Kabul, Afghanistan," Romano said.

She says her soldier suitor asked her to send the laptop to the African country of Ghana.

"He said you had to send the laptop to Ghana because?" Eyewitness News asked.

"He couldn't get it sent directly to Afghanistan," Romano said.

Along with that brand new computer, she kept sending more money, through wire transfers, as problems supposedly developed with customs.

"I believed in him. I honestly thought he was going to be truthful," Romano said.

Who would lie about being a soldier, she thought?it turns out, U.S. soldiers are victims too.

Their identities have been hijacked and they have no idea.

There's an entire facebook page where women share pictures and different names they say the scammers are using.

Joan Romano's soldier is prominently featured.

A U.S. Army spokesman this is becoming a nightmare.

"Their identities have been stolen off of facebook, press releases, hometown newspapers, anywhere the scammers can get a photograph," said Christopher Grey, "They'll often use the real name or make up a name."

Once women like Romano are hooked by constant attention from instant messaging, they'll buy anything.

Her scammer asked her to pay for security for gold bars he would be sending to the U.S.

"I used my savings, I exhausted my savings," Romano said.

Romano, now an office manager for a doctor, supports her disabled brother and mother who live with her in Lynbrook, Long Island.

"What went thru your mind when you realized this was a scam," Eyewitness News asked.

"I felt sick," Romano said, "It made me even more humiliated than I already felt."

Eyewitness News has not yet been able to identify the person in the photos Joan Romano received.

Match.com tells Eyewitness News that all of its member profiles are reviewed for fraud and offensive or illegal material, but the reality: it's not a private investigative service.

TIPS FROM THE ARMY

The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command is warning people to be suspicious if they begin a relationship on the internet with someone claiming to be an American solider, and within weeks, the alleged soldier is asking for money or their hand in marriage.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR:

- If you do start an internet-based relationship with someone, research what they are telling you with someone who would know, such as a current or former service member.

- Be very suspicious if you never get to actually speak with the person on the phone or are told they cannot write or receive letters in the mail. Servicemen and women serving overseas will often have an APO or FPO mailing address. Every service person is allowed to get mail and to write letters.

- Be extremely suspicious if you are asked for money for transportation costs, communication fees or marriage processing and medical fees. Scammers often say the Army won't pay for transportation back home or for "leave papers." That is not true.

- Scammers will often ask for a special cell phone because the Army won't let them make phone calls. Not true.

- Scammers will often ask for laptop computers because they have no contact with the outside world. Not true.

- Be very suspicious if you are asked to send money or ship property to a third party or company. Oftentimes, the company exists but has no idea or is not part of the scam.

- Be aware of common spelling, grammatical or language errors in the emails. Many of the scammers are now operating in African countries, such as Ghana, Angola and Nigeria. If you are asked to send money or laptops to those countries, it is likely a scam.

If you have a tip about this or any other issue you'd like investigated, please give our tipline a call at 877-TIP-NEWS. You may also e-mail us at the.investigators@abc.com and follow Jim Hoffer on Twitter at twitter.com/nycinvestigates


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