Prisoners in South Carolina’s Department of Corrections used a dating site to extort military personnel with an underage porn scare, according to authorities.
The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command is leading the investigation it calls “Operation Surprise Party.” According to search warrant applications, male prisoners used the dating site PlentyofFish to pose as young women. The Army investigation focused on military members, several of whom were allegedly caught in the scam. After exchanging sexual pictures, prisoners then started posing as the fictional girl’s father, who claimed the girl was underage, and demanded a bribe.
The alleged sextortion ring had been running the scheme for at least two years, beginning in 2015, emails referenced in the search warrant application show. The search warrant demanded Google turn over emails related to the alleged scheme. Court filings reveal Google complied with the search warrant and handed over “digital information pertaining to email account ‘firstname.lastname@example.org.’”
The scheme consisted of catfishers behind bars, and runners who helped them from outside the prisons. Inside the prison, men would make PlentyofFish accounts posing as “a female around the same age as the victim,” according to the warrant application.
Although internet access varies by state and prison facility (some prisons charge inmates massive fees to use tablet computers), inmates in some South Carolina prisons have found ways to go online. South Carolina news outlets have previously reported on prisoners using PlentyofFish to make legitimate dating accounts while serving time.
But the catfishing accounts were seeking money, not love.
“Once making contact on the dating application, the conversations are transferred to phone-to-phone text messaging,” the application states. “After several hours to several days of texting, the subject will either send unsolicited nude images of a female to the victim and/or agree to trade sexually explicit images with the victim.”
Then the prisoners allegedly changed characters, and adopted the role of the fictional girl’s father.
“The ‘father’ then notifies the victim that the female is under the age of 18. The father will typically state that he will leave law enforcement out of the equation if the victim agrees to pay for various things like cell phone replacement, counseling, hospital treatments, etc.”
The Army investigation focused on military members, who paid up “out of the fear that they will lose their careers... as there are compounding issues of conduct unbecoming and the fear that the victim truly believes they are in possession of child pornography and/or involved in the distribution of pornography to a child.”
The warrant application also names two people who allegedly moved money for the scammers outside prison. When the catfishing victims caved, the scammers allegedly told them to send a money order to one of these accomplices, who cashed the orders and put the money into the scammers’ accounts with JPay accounts, a prison tech company that processes payments to prisoners. The payments, in turn, can be used to buy pricey services on the computer tablets, which JPay also administers.
The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command has not announced any charges in the catfishing scheme.