A brief history of military imposter scams
In 1906, a German named Wilhelm Voigt, fresh out of prison after serving a lengthy
sentence for theft and forgery, stepped into a military surplus store to initiate his
greatest scheme yet. Emerging from the shop sporting a captain's uniform, he quickly
convinced a group of soldiers to follow him to the nearby town of Kopenick, where under
his command, they stormed the mayor's office and helped him loot 4,000 marks. It was
only after the soldiers delivered the bewildered mayor, whom they'd been ordered to
arrest, to the Berlin police that everyone realized Voigt and the money had gone missing.
Though he was eventually apprehended, he became a folk hero, praised for highlighting the
blind obedience of his countrymen to authority.
Military imposters have been prolific on our side of the pond, too. As the 100th
anniversary of the Civil War approached in the late 1950s, Americans were captivated by a
man named Walter Williams, who claimed to be 116 years old and the last living veteran of
the conflict. After some digging, researchers later concluded he'd actually been a child
when the war's first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. Williams was hardly alone in this
act: lying about Civil War service was then a favored tactic of fraudsters looking for
prestige and pensions.
Compared to these examples, military romance scams have a distinctly disturbing - and, in
many cases, sensual - flavor. Unlike your more run-of-the-mill instances of stolen valor,
these schemes involve assuming the identities of specific soldiers to make victims swoon.
Instead of constructing entire backstories, scammers typically tailor their characters
around their servicemen's traits, sprinkling in little pieces of truth they've gleaned
about the men they're pretending to be.
Denny's imposters, for instance, frequently talked about being from North Carolina and
visiting his family farm there (both of which are true), sending their targets pictures
of him out in the field alongside beautiful horses. It worked: turns out plenty of women
were drawn to the idea of a wholesome, sturdy country boy with a love of the outdoors and
a sensitive side. As the months passed, he began receiving phone calls from women who,
desperate to track him down, had taken to searching for him in his home state. In a few
cases, they even got hold of his parents. "I'm actually pretty lucky that I've only got a
cell phone," he said. "My folks get it a lot worse, since they've got a landline that's
publicly listed and easier to find."
By late 2015, Denny was receiving a weekly barrage of calls and messages from frenzied
women. His wife and teenage son were getting contacted. Some of the victims had become so
entranced that even after being told they had been duped, they couldn't let go. "I've had
to end up blocking a few of them because they just can't sort out what's real and what's
not," he said. "It consumes them. There's one particular woman in Germany who, I'm sure,
has pictures of me on her fridge and thinks I'm going to visit her someday. It's not funny
It's quite sad."
As a result of such interactions, Denny has become an expert at letting lonelyhearts
down easy, writing hundreds of reverse "Dear John" letters to those who've fallen for
him. He's also had to learn how to pinpoint and eradicate fake accounts using his
information. Since his now years-long search began in December of 2015, he's identified
roughly 4,000 bogus Facebook profiles that utilize a mixture of 51 different photos of
him. Last fall, he got a meeting with Facebook executives to talk about the problem, but
they weren't particularly helpful. "At one point, the senior leader we spoke with just
laughed out loud at us," he said. "It was really trite, really condescending, and
wreaked of an unprofessional disdain for responsibility and big picture solutions."
Facebook declined to comment on its meetings with Denny for this story, but a
representative for the company told Task & Purpose in April that the social network is
doing everything it can to ensure the safety of its users. "Staying ahead of those who
try to misuse our service is a constant effort, and we work constantly to detect and
block harmful activity, including removing accounts," they said. "Our security systems
run in the background millions of times per second to help catch threats and remove
them before they ever reach you." (Facebook has given the same verbatim statement to
media organizations before.)
Denny does credit Facebook for meeting with him several times since to discuss his
situation. Unfortunately, even if the company does an about-face and fully commits
itself to hunting down the countless fake accounts on its platform, it'll likely still
be behind the eight ball for quite some time. "Offenders are truly committed to their
targeting of victims, so for every fake profile that is removed or blocked, a new one
can be created in its place," said Dr. Cassandra Cross, an expert who has written
extensively on the impact these ploys have on romance scam victims. "Anonymity and the
transnational nature of offending works in favour of the perpetrators."
Though the odds are against him, Denny has continued to seek out executives at dating
websites and social media providers to highlight the issue. During every discussion,
he's had to answer an uncomfortable question: Why him? Simple: Potential victims "see a
guy who's served his country, has a son, and suddenly lost his wife," he said. "People
want to step up and help that guy out. That's the great country we live in, the great
environment our military lives within. They never suspect those things could be used