"It's very embarrassing," says Denise Tarramorse, 43, reflecting on the five months she spent in a long-distance relationship with a man she believed to be a American soldier, but who was actually a con artist. "These families give up so much for our safety and our freedom, and to have these jerks -- I won't use a harsher word -- impersonating them like that, I think they should be shot."
Tarramorse (pictured below), a teacher in California and a self-described "hugely pro-military person," was excited when she met Peter Genthe online through smartdate.com. Communicating over instant message, Genthe told Tarramorse he was a sergeant in the Army, deployed to Iraq. They emailed and instant messaged each other frequently and Tarramorse quickly developed feelings.
"Absolutely," she says. "I absolutely was falling for him." So one day, when Genthe asked her to wire him $300 to purchase a satellite phone so that he could call her, she didn't hesitate to send the money. Soon after, he began calling her, but it was hard for her to hear him.
"The line was very garbly, so we didn't talk very long. Basically, he would say 'Hey baby, I love you. So good to hear your voice.' And then we would lose the connection and he would send me an instant message."
After a few of these phone calls, Tarramorse noticed that Genthe, who'd told her he was from Australia, didn't sound Australian. "I thought maybe I just wasn't hearing him very well, because the line was so bad." So she continued to communicate with him, enjoying their online chats and believing him when he said he would come back to America after his deployment to marry her.
One day, Genthe explained that his mother, who he said was from Mexico and currently living there with her family, was sick and needed money for prescriptions and surgery. "I have a college degree and a master's degree," explains Terramorse. "I consider myself fairly intelligent. But the thought that this could be a scam never crossed my mind. It never even occurred to me even though I know there are scams out there." Instead, she wired him $1,400.
Once she sent the money, though, she "started having this kind of weird feeling in my stomach." She looked up the number for Genthe's satellite phone and discovered that the calls were placed from Nigeria. Then she googled Peter Genthe and found his name posted on various websites that identify scams, including scamwarners.com. That's when she knew there was no soldier who would one day come home to marry her. Instead, there was a man somewhere in Nigeria who'd robbed her of $1,700.
A Scam Out of Africa
Tarramorse is one of the thousands of women who fall victim each year to fraudsters posing as U.S. servicemembers. "A couple of years ago we were getting hundreds of calls a year about this scam," says Christopher Grey, chief of public affairs for the Army Criminal Investigation Command. "Now we get thousands. If we're getting calls from thousands of women, we know there are many more out there who aren't reporting it."
According to Grey, Tarramorse's experience is a textbook example of the scam. "This typically happens on an Internet dating website. The perpetrator takes the identity of U.S. soldiers and Marines, mainly, meets multiple women online and after a couple of weeks starts asking them for money. He professes love at hyper speed and continues to rob them."
Stealing a servicemember's identity can be surprisingly easy, laments Grey. The fraudster pulls the servicemember's photos from Facebook or press releases or local news stories, and builds an identity from there. Sometimes he uses a real servicemember's name and rank. Other times, he creates a new name.
The vast majority of the perpetrators are in Africa, which means the Army doesn't have the jurisdictional authority to go after them. The distance and cultural differences further confuse matters. "These guys are working in foreign countries where they can set up shop in a cybercafe and then move on," says Grey. "A lot of those cafes don't keep any records, so tracking someone down and bringing them to the U.S. is extremely difficult, both financially and logistically."
Fighting Human Nature
As a result, the military focuses on prevention by educating women about the realities of life in a combat zone. "I keep telling people to talk to someone who's been in the military," Grey says with a little sigh. "The perpetrators say they have to pay for their leave, but someone in the military knows that there's no such thing as paying for your leave."
Scammers also frequently provide addresses that anyone with military knowledge would immediately recognize as fraudulent. "In a combat zone, you can never send a letter directly to Chris Grey at my location," says Grey. "There are designators that the military has used for decades, generic addresses where the military collects the mail then sends it on to your actual location. If someone says to send the mail to Ghana because they can't get mail in Iraq or Afghanistan, or because their commanding officer is in Ghana and will pick it up and bring it back to them, that's just outlandish claims."
Despite the press releases and educational materials made available by the Army Criminal Investigation Command, women continue to fall for the scams. "I spoke to one woman who sent $28,000 total," says Grey. "I spoke to another who sent $15,000, and countless women who sent $5,000, $4,000, $3,000. It's worldwide. I've had victims come to me from Japan, Australia, Great Britain, you name it. When we do an alert, they just shift their business. Right now, we're seeing a lot of victims in Denmark."
Ultimately, Grey's command is not only battling the fraudsters, it's also fighting human nature. "I've had women tell me that they thought it was suspicious that the guy said he's from Atlanta but has an African accent, but still they kept up the relationship. It all comes down to love is blind. They continue in the relationship and hope that it is what it appears to be. It's just heartbreaking."