COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - U.S. District Attorney Sherri Lydon announced the unsealing of a multi-defendant indictment where a number of inmates at South and North Carolina prisons created a ‘sextortion’ ring to take advantage of U.S. military servicemembers and used contraband cellphones to do so.
The two-year, multi-state investigation, dubbed “Operation: Surprise Party” alleges that 15 people inside and outside of the Department of Corrections used contraband cellphones to extort more than 400 servicemembers through online dating websites posing as young women.
When the inmate would begin an online relationship with the servicemember, Lydon says inmates would send nude photos of a woman and ask for nudes in return.
Once the servicemember sent their nude photos, the inmate would pose as the young woman’s father and demand money in exchange for not being reported to officers for having nude photos of an underaged woman.
NCIS has been investigating the ring for nearly two years. All arrests were made without incident, according to the U.S. Marshal’s office. It is “one of many” criminal organizations taking place in our prisons, officials said.
The victims range in rank and are stationed at bases and posts across the country. In all, more than 440 servicemembers have had more than $560,000 in financial losses due to this scheme.
Once they received the money, inmates would use family members and friends outside of the prison to put the money in bank accounts and online banking services to deposit and use the money.
South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Brian Stirling continued to bring up the major issues with contraband cellphones.
“They’re physically incarcerated but they’re virtually among us,” Stirling said.
The defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, Lydon said.
Those involved with the investigation include: Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS), U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Command (CID), Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), Department of Defense Criminal Investigative Services (DCIS), Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigations (IRS-CI), United States Marshals Service (USMS), the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC), the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
You can watch the full press conference here.