Five prison inmates in South Carolina have been charged with setting up an elaborate extortion ring in which they blackmailed members of the military by posing as underage women online and collected more than half a million dollars, the authorities said Wednesday.
The inmates, who were indicted this month, used smartphones that were smuggled into prison to create profiles on social media and dating sites to lure in service members, Sherri A. Lydon, United States attorney for the District of South Carolina, said at a news conference in Columbia, S.C. Ten other people were charged with assisting the inmates in obtaining money they demanded from the service members, according to court documents.
The inmates exchanged nude photos with the service members, using photos of young women found on the internet, Ms. Lydon said. They would then pretend to be the girl’s father or another authority figure and tell the service member that their fictitious daughter was underage, she said. The inmates demanded money and said that if the service member didn’t pay, they would alert the military to the sexting, she said.
“Military members would then pay, fearful that they would lose their careers over possessing what they were led to believe was child pornography,” said Drew Goodridge, a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. That agency had been investigating the scheme since early 2017. It called the inquiry Operation Surprise Party.
The so-called sextortion ring succeeded in getting 442 service members to pay a total of more than $560,000, according to a news release from the N.C.I.S. The service members involved were from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
The news release said 250 other people, including civilians and inmates, were being investigated in connection with the scheme.
The five inmates indicted so far face a mixture of federal charges, including wire fraud, money laundering and extortion. To obtain the money, they used a network of bank accounts, money transfer services, online payment services and prepaid debit and credit cards, said Matthew Lyon, an investigator for the Internal Revenue Service, at the news conference.
Ms. Lydon, the United States attorney whose office is prosecuting the case, partly blamed the “unfettered use” of illicit cellphones in prison for allowing this operation.
“We do not lock up criminals only to have them go to prison and continue their criminal conduct,” she said.
In one case, an inmate, Wendell Wilkins, used a smuggled smartphone to send nude photos of young women to military members based across the country, the indictment alleged. Mr. Wilkins would then call the service members, posing as the young woman’s father and demand money to pay for counseling and medical bills his underage daughter needed to treat the trauma caused by the sexual explicit messages, according to the indictment.
Using PayPal, Moneygram and other services, Mr. Wilkins arranged for the money to be sent to people outside the prison who would then take part of the money and add the rest to a prepaid debit card account that he could access, the indictment said. The government says he obtained at least $80,000 using this strategy.
Some of the inmates would ask others in their prison to call service members posing as police officers, according to the indictment. They would then threaten to arrest the service members if they failed to send additional money.
It was unclear whether the inmates are currently being represented by lawyers. A spokesman for the United States Attorney’s Office did not respond immediately to a request for comment on Wednesday evening.
Mr. Goodridge said at the news conference, which was posted online by a local television station, that service members who were targeted by this scheme were from all ranks. He said there were most likely other unidentified service members who had not reported their experiences to military authorities and urged them to do so.
Jeff Houston, a spokesman for the naval investigative service, said in an email that no disciplinary action would be taken against the service members because they did not commit any crimes.
Follow Julia Jacobs on Twitter: @juliarebeccaj.
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