, 34 tweets, 16 min read
For a year, I dove into a dark corner of Facebook and Instagram, where con artists impersonate American servicemen to scam vulnerable women.

To illustrate the fraud's personal toll, I followed one scam, from Florida to Nigeria. Here is that tragic story.
nytimes.com/2019/07/28/tec…
While I reported this story, a New York Times film crew followed me. The result was a special one-hour episode of The Times's new TV show, @TheWeekly, that aired last night on FX. It is now on Hulu.

If you haven't seen it, then beware: Spoilers ahead.
nytimes.com/2019/07/26/the…
The trail begins with Renee Holland. She joined Facebook in 2016 and quickly heard from a handsome American soldier. Their relationship deepened over online chats. Eventually he started asking for money. She sent thousands of dollars.
In 2017, she wired him $5,000 for airfare to return from Iraq. He sent her this image. She draped herself in an American flag & drove to Philadelphia airport. He never showed. Realizing it was a scam, she swallowed too many sleeping pills & sped down I-95. She awoke in a hospital
When I met Renee last year, she was still chatting with her scammer. She believed he was a fake & wanted to ring the alarm on such scams. (She also wouldn't mind if we could find him.)

So we sent him a link that, if he clicked, would give us his IP address and rough location.
He clicked. He was in Lagos, Nigeria.

Let me note: We are typically transparent in our reporting, but we were dealing with a con artist here.
So now that we knew her Facebook friend was not an American soldier in Iraq, who was the man in all these photos?
I sifted through Facebook, called wrong numbers, knocked on doors. It took me nearly a month, but I finally found him.

Sgt. Daniel Anonsen spent 13 years in the Marine Corps. For much of that time, he has been dealing with Facebook & Instagram impostors.
In 2010, Daniel discovered hundreds of unsolicited Facebook messages from women. They said they loved him. They implored him to write back.

Confused, he searched his name on Facebook and was horrified with what he found.
Searching variations of his name, I found 65 accounts on Facebook and Instagram that used his photos. Many more use different names, like Renee's scammer, and are hard to find.

I reported the fakes through the sites' online-reporting systems. Over six months, they took down 24.
So what is the Pentagon doing about the widespread impersonation of its service members? Reporting them to Facebook -- and not much else.

Kim Joiner, a Pentagon official, told me she was "absolutely satisfied" with Facebook's response. “I don’t know what else we can be doing."
I then showed her that in a short period before our interview, I found more than 120 accounts impersonating three of the military's top generals. This one has edited photos of Army Gen. Mark Milley with captions like "Rolling to Duty!!" & lovesick comments from women.
Before the interview with Ms. Joiner, I reported 46 of the accounts to Instagram. Within 24 hours, it responded to each one with a message: We reviewed the account and it doesn't break our rules.

I sent the full list to the Pentagon. Four months later, 25 were still active.
Back on Renee's trail, I went through her receipts. She sent most of her money to people across the U.S. Her scammer told her they were "Army agents." They were in fact money mules who scammers use to launder funds. They can be accomplices or victims themselves.
So I went and knocked on the doors of one of those people, a woman in New Jersey named Maria. When she answered, I asked her if she had heard from any military men on Facebook. Her face dropped. "Yes," she said. "A lot."
Sadly, Maria was a victim of the same fraud -- by the same scammers.

Her story reflects that of likely thousands of other victims: Her husband died; she was lonely; she joined Facebook; she got into a relationship with a supposed soldier; and she lost her life savings.
The story then took a deeply tragic turn. After struggling to reach Renee, I searched her name on the internet and was sickened to learn her husband had killed her, her father and then himself.

It deeply affected me. I wrote about the experience here:
nytimes.com/2019/07/28/rea…
Renee wanted this story told, so we kept going.

Our next stop: Nigeria. I messaged more than 100 scammers for interviews, but most either ignored me or tried to scam me. So I went to the internet cafes, and met one happy to tell his story.
Akinola Bolaji has run scams for 20 years. While posing as an American fisherman, he developed a monthslong Facebook romance with a woman. He told her he was stuck in Nigeria and needed a plane ticket. But before she sent money, he was overcome with guilt. He had fallen in love.
He told her the truth. “She cried, cried, cried,” he said. “I feel very bad.” He has since quit love scams because “it damages the heart."

Bolaji lated invited us to his place, which was covered with photos of his favorite celebrity, Queen Elizabeth II. "Strong woman," he said.
But we were there to find Renee's and Maria's scammers.

I had confirmed via sources that their money had ended up in Owerri, Nigeria - and, specifically, to this bank.

I obtained four addresses for two men who received their money. I knocked on the doors but all were dead ends.
I got a number linked to two men involved in their scams. When I called, the man hung up. When I texted him, he wrote this. Later, he called: "I'm just a delivery man."

Months later, I called back. The same man answered pretending to be someone else. "You can call me Chris."
Facebook declined a request for an interview. Instead, they sent me this statement.
Believe it or not, this is just a fraction of the story. Read the rest of it here, or on the front of today's Times:
nytimes.com/2019/07/28/tec…
And if you really don't have time, even though you just read this entire thread, then you can get our five takeaways: nytimes.com/2019/07/28/tec…
But the main attraction is really the one-hour episode of @TheWeekly. Stream it on Hulu starting today.

Thank you for reading and watching, and thank you to all our subjects who shared their stories. nytimes.com/2019/07/26/the…
@TheWeekly If you missed the episode last night, you can still catch it on Hulu: hulu.com/series/the-wee…

And FX: fxnetworks.com/video/15774643…
@TheWeekly I spoke about our story today on the Today Show. today.com/video/how-to-p…
@TheWeekly Hello! Please join me for a Reddit AMA about my story on military romance scams on Facebook and Instagram. It's starting now:
reddit.com/r/IAmA/comment…
@TheWeekly New: A Republican congressman and Air Force veteran who has battled Facebook impostors for years said he is preparing legislation to force Facebook to do more to combat military romance scams.

It is the first sign of immediate impact from our story. nytimes.com/2019/08/01/tec…
@TheWeekly Here is the letter @RepKinzinger sent to Mark Zuckerberg this week after reading our coverage. “There needs to be accountability for this issue that can, quite frankly, destroy lives."
@TheWeekly @RepKinzinger Remember when we reported how love scams that ruined lives were rampant on Facebook and Instagram -- and how the company appeared helpless to stop them?

Well, today, Facebook made news on that front: It launched a dating service.
Today: More evidence of the scams that target people looking for love on Facebook and other sites.

Also today: Facebook launched a new dating service in the U.S.

with @Azi: nytimes.com/2019/09/05/nyr…
.@RepKinzinger, who has been a victim of Facebook impostors, on the company's new U.S. dating service: "Rather than compound this issue with a dating platform, Facebook should focus its attention and resources on putting a stop to the scams and fake accounts."
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