Is the Service Member You’re "Dating" Actually a Scammer?
It was the last message retired Col. Bryan Denny expected to see when he opened his LinkedIn inbox [*]:
I really need to speak with you, Bryan. I thought you were coming to visit me after your deployment in Syria was completed?
Denny had never been to Syria. And he’d never met the woman who was messaging him.
But after a few messages back and forth, it all became clear: someone was using Denny’s photos, identity, and military background to run a military romance scam on dating sites and social media.
The FTC confirmed in February 2023 that nearly 70,000 people reported a romance scam, with losses of $1.3 billion in 2022 [*].
If something seems off about the military member you’ve been speaking with, stop what you’re doing. Take a step back and look for these red flags of a military romance scam.
What Are Military Romance Scams? How Do They Work?
Military romance scams are a type of imposter scam where fraudsters pose as service members and emotionally manipulate victims into sending them money, gift cards, or sensitive information.
Many fraudsters live in foreign countries and use stolen photos and personal information from real veterans or active duty service members to fool their victims.
Here’s how military romance scams typically work:
- Fraudsters create fake profiles on dating apps, websites, and social media. They’ll use real photos and research real service members to create a believable persona.
- Next, they identify vulnerable targets. The usual victims are people who show support for the military either through their profiles or by joining Facebook groups or donating to veterans charities.
- Once you’re in an online relationship, they escalate quickly. Scammers will “love bomb” their victims or even propose in a matter of weeks. Many scammers operate as groups and share scripts and formulas that pull on your emotions and cloud your judgment.
- Once you’re hooked, they ask for favors. This could be in the form of money, gift cards, or sensitive information they can use for identity theft and extortion.
- When you realize they’re a scammer, they disappear. You're left embarrassed and out the money they stole from you.
This is almost the exact playbook for other online dating scams and social engineering attacks. So, what makes military romance scams so deadly?
First, these scammers can hide behind our ignorance of military protocol. Do you know if service members have to pay for their own food or go on leave? Few civilians know the specific rules that service members have to follow.
Next, service members are often deployed to faraway locations and unable to meet in person. This gives them the perfect excuse to keep the scam going long enough for you to get hooked.
Finally, many people feel they owe a debt of gratitude to those in the military.
These scammers have become masters at playing with your emotions. It’s sad, but many victims continue with the “relationship” even after they start to suspect they’re being scammed.
17 Warning Signs of Military Romance Scams
- They say they can’t access their bank account
- They need money to pay for food or housing
- They want you to help them get money back into the U.S.
- A commanding officer is demanding money from them
- They want you to hold onto a valuable package for them
- They need to pay to go on leave
- They can’t video chat for “security reasons”
- They need money to pay for their children or medical procedures
- They quickly tell you they love you or even propose
- They only use a personal email address (not a .mil one)
- They give you a direct phone number but never answer
- They say they need to pay to retire
- They send you images of their “official” military ID badge
- They’re stationed or live far from you
- They claim to have been deployed for 2+ years
- Their social media accounts are sparse
- They want to move the conversation to WhatsApp or texts
If you see any of these warning signs, you could be dealing with a military romance scammer. Here’s what to look for:
1. They say they can’t access their bank account
Military romance scammers will often claim they’re dealing with a banking issue due to being deployed overseas. Maybe they can’t get into their account, or they’re unable to deposit their usual pay and need help getting money.
But if you send them money, they’ll always have an excuse as to why they can’t pay you back. And if you give them your banking details to “deposit” their pay, they’ll use that to commit financial fraud and empty your account.
In almost every case, the easiest way to spot a military romance scammer is simply if they ask you for money.
Never send money or banking details to someone you’ve never met in person. And don’t believe images of checks they’ve sent you. These can easily be faked.
2. They need money to pay for food or housing
Another common military romance scam is claiming they need money to pay for food or housing. But the military feeds and houses soldiers. They don’t need to reach out to civilians to cover these kinds of expenses.
What you need to know: The military provides housing and food for deployed troops.
3. They want you to help them get money back into the U.S.
This is known as the “unexpected money” scam. A fraudster will use their backstory to claim they’ve come into money abroad and want your help getting it into the U.S. For example, they might say they found cash or valuable goods during an operation and are allowed to keep it.
This is a scam. They’ll ask you to either front them cash to help get the money out of the country or they’ll request your financial information, after which a “banker” will reach out to organize the transfer. But in both cases, you’ll only lose money.
What you need to know: It is very unlikely for active duty military personnel to come across large sums of money by chance.
💡 Related: The Most Unbelievable Identity Theft Stories of All Time →
4. A commanding officer is demanding money from them
If you receive a phone call from someone claiming to be a commanding officer, hang up. Commanding officers will never call civilians for any reason, especially not to ask for money or gift cards.
What you need to know: High ranking military officers will not reach out to civilians when a service member is planning to take leave.
5. They want you to hold onto a valuable package for them
A more recent military romance scam is where the scammer asks to send you a package. They’ll claim they have something valuable they need to get out of the country
First off, they can now use your home address to commit a change-of-address scam or other types of identity theft. But the more likely outcome is that the “package” they send you will get stuck in customs. You just need to pay a fee to release it.
The scammer will tell you not to worry and that the package is more valuable than the fee. But once you pay it another fee will appear (or the scammer will disappear).
What you need to know: Soldiers and servicemen won’t send you mystery packages or ask you to pay customs fees.
6. They need to pay to go on leave
This is a common excuse that fraudsters use in order for you to pay for them to visit. But the military will always pay for soldiers to return home safely, regardless of where they are.
Another common variation of this scam is a superior reaching out to you to arrange the scammer’s trip “home.” If anyone asks you to help pay for travel arrangements, it’s a scam.
What you need to know: Military members are not responsible for transportation costs to return home after serving.
💡 Related: How To Avoid Airline Scams (Don't Pay Extra for Cheap Flights) →
7. They can’t video chat for "security reasons"
Romance scammers know that if they get on a video call, you’ll see that they’re pulling off an impersonation. So, they come up with constant excuses to get out of them, like having a poor internet connection or not being allowed due to security restrictions.
A very common variation of this scam is saying they can’t video chat because they’re in the special forces and it would be dangerous. But there are two major red flags to watch out for here:
- The military doesn’t stop service members from using video chat. In fact, they encourage deployed soldiers to stay in contact with family and friends. There are phone centers and video chat stations set up in many locations.
- Members of special forces units most likely aren’t on dating sites while deployed. It would be dangerous for someone deployed with the Marine Corps or Navy Seals to engage with strangers online. Plus, they’re most likely not spending their free time on social media.
Some scammers will also claim to have poor internet connections, so their videos are dark, low-quality, and short. But it can be enough to give you the impression that you actually “saw” them.
Unless you can see, hear, and have a full conversation with someone online, there’s a good chance they’re a scammer.
What you need to know: Special forces members will almost never contact you on a dating site or social media, especially while deployed.
8. They need money to pay for their children or medical procedures
Military romance scammers already know that you value people who are responsible and take care of others. And they’ll use this against you. Scammers will claim they need help paying for their children (many scammers claim to be widowers) or for medical procedures for family members.
Again, any attempt to get you to send money, wire transfers, gift cards, or cryptocurrency is a huge red flag.
What you need to know: All military personnel have access to world-class medical insurance that covers medical fees and care for themselves, their children, and their loved ones.
💡 Related: Child Identity Theft: The Parental Guide to Protecting Your Kids →
9. They quickly tell you they love you or even propose
To get you hooked on the scam, fraudsters want to move the online romance forward quickly. To do this, they’ll express their deep feelings for you and tell you they love you within a matter of days or weeks.
While it’s completely normal to feel excited by a new relationship, there’s a difference between legitimate emotions and “love-bombing.” Deemed a warning sign of abuse by psychologists, love-bombing is when someone expresses an extreme amount of affection very quickly in a relationship.
Scammers will also use this as an opportunity to get you to pay for a “fiancé fee” that will allow them to come back and marry you. Be cautious of anyone who moves quickly or even proposes before you’ve met. This can be a warning sign of a romance scam.
What you need to know: The military cannot control who soldiers decide to marry. Soldiers do not have to ask anyone in the military for permission to wed.
10. They only use a personal email address (not a .mil one)
While it’s common for service members to use normal email domains (like Gmail, Yahoo, etc.), most senior personnel will have an official .mil address. These are only available to people in the military.
It’s not an immediate red flag that someone doesn’t have a .mil email address. But if they do, you can feel a little more secure.
What you need to know: Free email services like Gmail are common tools used for phishing attacks.
11. They give you a direct phone number but never answer
Scammers want to control the flow of communication in order to manipulate victims. A common tactic is to give you a direct phone number to build trust. But any time you call, they don’t answer and instead call you back later.
This tactic works especially well for military romance scams, as they can say they were on a mission or in training. But be especially cautious if you can never reach someone when you want to.
Also, be cautious if they say they can’t receive mail.
Even if they have poor internet or phone reception, soldiers can still receive mail with an APO or FPO mailing address. If the soldier you’re speaking with tells you that you can’t send mail, that’s another sign that they’re an impostor.
What you need to know: Civilians do not need to pay any communication fees or other charges to speak to someone in the military.
12. They say they need to pay to retire
Some scammers will claim they want to retire early so they can be with you. But they’ll say they need to pay fees to get out of their service duty.
This is a lie. Soldiers can retire cost-free and there are no charges associated with early retirement in the armed forces.
What you need to know: Soldiers do not need to pay anything to retire from the military, no matter how old they are.
13. They send you images of their “official” military ID badge
Another way that scammers build trust is by sending you their official military ID. But these photos can easily be doctored to match the backstory they’ve created.
Plus, it would be risky for any active service member to send you a photo of their ID, as it contains personal information they wouldn’t want out in public.
What you need to know: Active service members won’t send you photos of their ID as “proof” of who they are.
14. They’re stationed or live far from you
Be careful if the person you think you’re talking to is normally stationed or lives far away from you. While this isn’t always a red flag, it should be something you question.
Ask what their intentions are. If they’re trying to build a relationship, why not do it with someone close to their hometown and family?
What you need to know: Soldiers on dating websites who have no real-world connection to you could be trying to catfish you.
15. They claim to have been deployed for 2+ years
Military romance scammers are always overseas and unable to visit you. In many cases, scammers will claim to be on extended deployments to keep their fraud going.
But deployments do not last three years — and most don’t last more than 15 months. Any soldier who claims to be deployed for three years or more is likely a scammer.
What you need to know: Soldiers may be on tour for one to two years, and the typical length of a deployment is 15 months.
16. Their social media accounts are thin (few friends, old posts, etc.)
If you start to investigate your romantic partner and find their social media accounts, look for warning signs of an imposter scam. These include:
- Low friend count (the average Facebook user has 338 friends [*])
- No recent posts
- Only the same photos they used on their dating profile
- Sharing strange links in foreign languages
- Multiple profiles with the same name and photos
What you need to know: Soldiers have an online footprint just like the rest of us. If it’s thin or nonexistent, they might not be real.
17. They want to move the conversation to WhatsApp or texts
If you connect with a scammer over a dating app or site like Facebook, they’ll want to quickly move to WhatsApp or Telegram in case their profiles get taken down.
Many platforms — including dating and social media sites — have policies that can help protect you against scammers. Try to stay on them as long as possible.
What you need to know: Moving off of official dating websites to personal messaging tools is a red flag that you’re dealing with a fraud.
How To Tell If You’re Talking To a Military Romance Scammer
It can be difficult to admit you’ve been scammed on a dating site (and even harder to convince a friend). But if you see the warning signs and still aren’t convinced, there are a few final steps you can take.
Start by listening for the common phrases that scammers use, such as:
- Saying they’re on a “peacekeeping” mission.
- Saying they’re looking for an “honest woman” (or man).
- Telling you their parents, wife, or husband are deceased.
- Claiming to have children who are being looked after by a nanny or guardian.
- Professing their love almost immediately.
- They claim to be in the U.S. military, but their spelling and grammar aren’t what you’d expect from a native English speaker.
Next, research their name and reverse image search their profile photos:
- Do a reverse Google image search of their photos: Drag or paste their photo into Google and see what comes up. If there are multiple social media profiles or the photos are publicly available, it could be a scam.
- Search their name on social media. Are there multiple profiles? Do they all use the same photos or variations of them? This is a huge warning sign.
- Google “their name + scam.” Scamming groups reuse the same names and photos until they no longer can. If someone else has been scammed using this fake identity, you might find it on Reddit, Twitter, or other sites.
💡 Related: Can You Stop the Identity Theft of a Deceased Person? →
What To Do if You’re the Victim of a Military Romance Scam
If you recognize any of these warning signs or common phrases from military scammers, the first thing you need to do is break off contact with them. Stop answering messages and don’t send them any (or any more) money.
Then, once you’ve separated yourself from the scammer, follow these steps:
- Don’t blame yourself. Scammers are getting better and more sophisticated at fraud. While it may be hard to accept that someone you’ve grown to know and care about is an impostor, it’s easier than dealing with the aftermath of fraud.
- Report the scam to the FBI and CID. You should report the scam to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center and the U.S. Military Criminal Investigation Division.
- Flag the account on the dating site, app, or social media site. Block the scammer’s account and then flag them with the service you’re using.
- File an official identity theft report with the FTC. If you’ve given the scammer personal information, you should file an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission at IdentityTheft.gov.
- Check your financial statements and freeze your credit. Look for signs of fraud in your credit report. You can also freeze your credit with the three main credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. A credit freeze stops scammers from using your personal information to open new accounts or take out loans in your name.
- Start monitoring your credit. Aura monitors your bank, credit, and investment accounts for signs of fraud. If a scammer is trying to steal your money, Aura can alert you so you can shut them down and protect your finances.
- File a police report. In some cases (like if you’re claiming identity theft protection insurance), you may also need to file a police report for identity theft with your local law enforcement.
- Try to reverse any payments you sent the scammer. Follow the steps in this guide on how to get your money back if you’ve been scammed online.
- Update all of your passwords. Scammers can use your personal information to take over your online accounts. Update all of your sensitive accounts with new, unique passwords and use a password manager and 2FA for enhanced security.
- Consider signing up for identity theft protection. Nearly 30% of victims of identity theft are repeat victims. If a scammer has your info, they could strike again. Consider signing up for Aura’s identity theft protection. We’ll monitor your online and financial accounts for signs of fraud. And if the worst happens, you’re covered by a $1,000,000 insurance policy for eligible costs due to identity theft.
For more detailed steps to take, follow the fraud victim's checklist.
The Bottom Line: Avoid Military Romance Scams
Military romance scammers take advantage of how we’re all looking for a special connection in life. And while they’re getting more common, it doesn’t mean you should stop your search.
By understanding the warning signs of a military romance scammer, you can quickly tell if the service member you’re speaking with is legitimate or a fraud.
And for added protection, consider an identity theft and fraud monitoring solution like Aura. We’ll keep you safe, so you can keep searching for that special someone.