Advocating Against Romance Scammers
Newport Daily Press Day 2 - By Hugh LessigContact Reporter - August 12, 2018
Fighting back: 'Champions' needed to block military romance scams
In a typical month, Kathy Waters can find about 40 Facebook accounts that have stolen the identity of her friend, Bryan Denny, a retired Army colonel who lives in Williamsburg.
Waters forwards the information to Facebook, which typically deletes 8 percent of those accounts, she says. She sends the rest to Denny, who personally directs Facebook to remove them. His success rate is closer to 50 percent.
"So 50 percent of the ones Bryan turns in are still left up for people to be scammed on," said Waters, who lives in California.
This batting average is why Congress must enact tougher laws that compel Facebook and other online providers to crack down on a tidal wave of online imposters, they say. In Denny's case, the angle is military romance scams, where fraudsters pose as respectable officers to wheedle money from people looking to fall in love.
In fact, a military romance scam brought Denny and Waters together, but it's not what you think.
Denny came upon this problem in 2015. That summer, he received a call from a woman who wondered when he was coming home from Syria.
Denny had never been in Syria. He'd never talked to the woman. She was just as adamant that she knew him.
He subsequently discovered that romance scammers had stolen his photos and personal information many times over, tricking her and others. By late 2015, he was getting call after call from women who insisted they knew him. In a few cases, the victims didn't believe they'd been tricked, even after Denny insisted they had.
Another victim lived in California, a friend of Waters' mother. Waters got curious because the fraudster went by the name Ross Newton, but the photo showed a man in uniform with the name badge of Denny.
It took some searching, but she eventually found the real Bryan Denny.
Since then, they've teamed up to fight the scammers.
Is enough being done?
Is enough being done?
Military romance scams are a growing problem. The military pushes out educational materials to soldiers and the public. The FBI has had some success in prosecuting scammers, many of whom operate outside of the United States.
Facebook didn't comment on Denny's specific case, but says it is building new artificial intelligence to detect bad actors - just as it's done with terrorist propaganda - and at least doubling its security efforts.
Denny and Waters say more must be done because it's impossible to grain ground by working through existing channels. His case isn't the kind of problem that can be solved with a few emails and automated replies. More than 2,500 false accounts have been detected in his name.
"That isn't as easy as I thought, because they don't take my word for it that I'm me," Denny said. "You never get anything back. Not ever. Not once. A human being never, ever calls you. After several months of this, it was pretty discouraging."
Denny and Waters persisted and eventually met with Facebook officials, whom they credited with arranging a sit-down meeting and trying to find solutions. They provided photos of Denny used most often in these scams. The photos were placed in a special portal so Facebook would recognize if anyone other than Denny was posting them.
Waters said they still didn't see results. Facebook has since said it deleted a number of accounts, according to Waters, but she doesn't know which ones or how many.
Also, scammers found a way around Facebook's effort to help, Waters said. Some fake accounts used a smaller version of Denny's photo superimposed on a larger image of something mundane.
The facial recognition software meant to flag photos saw the larger image, not the smaller one.
"The Tennessee state flag was big for a while, and the smaller picture would be a closeup of me," Denny said. "Sometimes it would be a group shot. A photo of a Care Bear was popular for a while. God only knows where they pick up these things."
One day earlier this year, Waters began reporting fraudulent accounts in Denny's name to Facebook. After reporting 100 suspected imposters, she received an automated message from Facebook: "Because you filed too many reports in a short time period, you won't be able to report contact for one day."
Waters was later told that Facebook does this for safety purposes. She understands that, because someone could abuse the reporting function.
But "there's got to be some type of program you can trust," she said.
Denny is a determined warrior against romance scams, but he prefers to fight under the radar. It took him a while before he could talk about it, and says "nobody wants to be known like this."
He credits Waters for propping up his spirits and keeping focus.
"I'm all about justice and the American way," Denny said, "but, in truth, it was really Kathy who said we could do more."
A legislative fix?
"A legislative fix?"
Waters and Denny want to amend a 1996 law commonly known as Section 230. It grants online platforms broad legal protection for what users post on their sites. It's an important component of free expression online.
Supporters say this law allows people to post all kinds of opinions and reviews on places like Facebook, Yelp or Reddit. And it helps those sites, and others, grow to meet demand.
In a National Public Radio story published in March, it was called "the one line of federal code that has created more economic value in this country than any other" by Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association.
As the IA sees it, if providers were liable for content posted on their sites, they would become gatekeepers and enforcement agents, compelling them to block user content, even if it was legal.
That would make the web less free, innovative and collaborative.
Waters says her goal is not to hinder freedom of expression. She's after scammers who create fake accounts.
She wants Section 230 amended to require ongoing public education, technology that is routinely updated and adequate staffing to provide hands-on monitoring of reported duplicate accounts and newly created accounts that could be fraudulent.
"There are so many things that can be done that they're not doing," she said.
She has traveled to Washington, as has Denny, to meet with members of Congress. They hope for continued movement in the fall.
But amending Section 230, a bedrock law upon which the web has grown, raises red flags for civil libertarians, including Emma Llanso of the Center for Democracy and Technology.
The protections provided by Section 230 are "really essential to any kind of interactive online service, or even a website with a comment section," she said. "It's crucial that intermediaries have strong legal protection from liability for the comment that their users post."
One big reason is volume. So much content is posted on websites, apps and other services that it's impossible to perform the kind of pre-publication check that, for example, newspapers do in the name of journalistic diligence.
She believes a legislative solution is too broad to address specific problems, and it could have unintended consequences. Amending Section 230 would bring First Amendment issues into play, whereas talking about private companies enforcing terms of service would not.
But she agrees more could be done.
Online platforms "need to ensure that they have the systems and personnel, the kind of customer service in place, to be responsive when issues like these arise," Llanso said.
That's especially the case with egregious problems. In Denny's case, well over 1,000 fraudulent accounts have been detected.
"I think it's incumbent upon the platforms to figure out how to be more responsive to the really specific kinds of issues that people like Col. Denny are bringing to them," said Llanso. "This is a really clearly defined problem. It seems like it should be easier for the platforms to respond, but right now, their systems may not be really set up to do it."
She said platforms seem to be getting the message that they need to beef up their responsiveness. Automation and algorithms only go so far.
"I do get a sense that some of this is hitting home, and they're really grappling with the scale of the challenge they're facing," Llanso said. "The content moderation systems they had in place probably didn't scale up as quickly as their user base."
Online platforms: We can self-regulate
Online platforms: We can self-regulate
Section 230 protects online platforms from being sued over content that users post, but there is a flip side, too, the Internet Association says.
It also allows providers to moderate comments or censor hate speech, delete fraudulent information and take down fake accounts and not be held liable for it. That's also an important part of the law.
In a statement emailed to the Daily Press, IA spokesman Noah Theran said "these protections are essential to the success of the Internet as we know it, for consumers and platforms alike. Removing them for identity theft would only stifle all speech online and make it more difficult for good actors like IA member companies to keep bad actors off their platforms."
Stealing the the identities of veterans or service members is "a terrible crime and goes against everything the internet industry stands for," he said.
Facebook spokesman Pete Voss said via email that they have made several recent improvements to deter impersonators. That includes face recognition technology, automation to detect scams and improved reporting.
In March, Facebook introduced new "machine learning techniques" to better detect more than a half-million accounts tied to financial scams, Voss said.
People without a Facebook account can now report imposters. When it comes to its own personnel, he said Facebook "is doubling or more our engineering efforts focused on security. And we're also building new AI (artificial intelligence) to detect bad content and bad actors - just like we've done with terrorist propaganda."
Education: Reaching Dr. Phil
Education: Reaching Dr. Phil
The military is doing its part to educate service members and the public about military romance scams. Those efforts span the services, including the Army, where Denny served with distinction.
Chris Grey is the chief public affairs officer for the Army's Criminal Investigative Command, commonly known as CID. For them, prosecuting military romance scammers is difficult because the perpetrators are not in the Army and, in most cases, not even U.S. citizens. Many scammers are believed to operate out of Africa in countries like Ghana and Nigeria.
"We realized early on that education is the only way we're going to combat this," Grey said. "We aren't going to be able to investigate and prosecute because of the jurisdiction."
His office has issued news releases around the world, worked with foreign embassies and credit bureaus and reached out to the FBI and Treasury Department. The outreach hits both the military and civilian sectors.
Service members are told to lock down their social media accounts, especially Facebook. CID built a database of women's magazines and sends out releases, knowing that the victim demographic can be females aged 30 to 70.
They've contacted the "Dr. Phil" show - hosted by Dr. Phil McGraw, the psychologist who tells us to "get real." He's done stories on the issue.
"It's amazing watching the show. My wife will tape it for me just so I can get frustrated," Grey joked.
Closer to home, romance scams occupy the attention of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, headquartered at Fort Eustis, home to many senior Army leaders.
TRADOC public affairs detects dozens of imposter sites each month involving persons trying to impersonate a high-ranking officer. TRADOC then submits requests for the account to be removed, which usually takes several days or less.
'Some goodness will happen'
Denny has received plenty of encouragement from well-wishers, including members of Congress. But wishes don't get the job done, and he's at the point where he wants to see action.
"We need champions that taxpayers put into office," said Denny. "It's great to have the praise, but I think that we're kind of at the next level. Why don't you help figure out how to get this done? If you don't know how to get legislation through, why am I even talking to you?"
That said, he's optimistic about the eventual outcome, even if the light at the end of the tunnel seems far away.
"Everybody is going to get an opportunity to do the right thing, and to be involved with it," Denny said. "I think we're going to fight this fight. It's going to take a long time, but in the end, we will see some goodness come out of this. It's not going to happen overnight. We don't expect it to. But there's some goodness that's going to come out of this."
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Here are some resources for people who want to know more about online military romance scams.
If you've been victimized: Call the FBI Norfolk office at 757-455-0100, or go online to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center at IC3.gov.
What the military is doing: One resource is the Army's Criminal Investigative Command. Go to cid.army.mil and scroll down to the section on "Online Romance Scam Warning."
To read more about Internet privacy issues: The Center for Democracy and Technology is at cdt.org. The Internet Association's website is at internetassociation.org.
Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821