For more than a year, hundreds of military members thought they were finding love online.
But it wasn't so. Instead, it was a case of prison inmates posing as women online, looking for victims in a scheme that investigators say netted more than half a million dollars.
The service members, spread across the United States, were from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. They thought they were chatting with women onand . They developed a relationship online and allegedly enough trust to exchange naked photos.
Then the scam came.
After the service member received the sexually explicit photos, investigators said, the tone quickly changed. The persona would shift from the woman to a father or a police officer, telling the service members they'd been chatting with a minor. Then they would demand money.
The "father" claimed that the money was for counseling and medical bills for trauma that the "underage daughter" suffered, according to court documents.
The scheme stole more than $560,000 from more than 400 military members, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service said in a statement Wednesday. These payments came through Western Union, MoneyGram and PayPal, authorities said.
"Too many service members from throughout the armed services have fallen victim to this scam," Robert E. Craig Jr., a special agent from the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, said in a statement.
Sextortion campaigns are common scams, as con artists prey both on people's desires and on their fear of getting caught. Since July, for instance, thieves have been using a common sextortion scheme through email, claiming they've hacked the recipients' computers in attempts to blackmail them.
"We've noticed a sharp rise in the number of sextortion scams as well as the complexity of the scams. Attackers are combining fact with fiction to make these scams seem more credible in order to trick victims," Craig Williams, Talos Outreach director, said in an email.
In the case revealed Wednesday, the "women" were actually South Carolina inmates, who targeted military members on social networks and dating sites, NCIS said. The inmates used contraband cellphones to access the dating websites and to find nude photos of young women online, prosecutors said.
"With nothing more than smartphones and a few keystrokes, South Carolina inmates along with outside accomplices victimized hundreds of people," Daniel Andrews, director of the Army's computer crime investigative unit, said.
Five inmates were indicted on federal charges, while 10 others were charged with helping the inmates collect the payments, US district attorney Sherri Lydon said at a press conference Wednesday.
"It is the unfettered use of contraband cellphones that allows inmates to continue harming the citizens of South Carolina," Lydon said.
According to court documents, the inmates had been running this scheme since February 2016. NCIS started its investigation in January 2017, finding that more than 250 people were involved.
The investigation, titled "Operation Surprise Party," is ongoing. NCIS is looking for accomplices in the massive sextortion campaign.
Meanwhile, the South Carolina Department of Corrections has spent $1 million per facility to put up netting to prevent phones from being thrown over fencing.
"I've lost track of how many times I've had to talk about these cellphones and the problems they cause," said Brian Sterlings, director of the Department of Corrections.
: I'm being blackmailed for bitcoin... by snail mail.
CNET's Holiday Gift Guide: The place to find the best tech gifts for 2018.