Service members are the most frequent victims of identity theft

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It might seem counterintuitive, but the most heavily armed and trained Americans are also the most frequent victims of identity theft. Scamming of military members has become big business. Adam Darrah, the director of intelligence services at threat intelligence firm ZeroFOX, has studied this problem in great detail. He discussed his findings on Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript: 

Tom Temin: Mr. Darrah, good to have you on.

Adam Darrah: Appreciate it Tom, thank you.

Tom Temin: And you’ve studied this and what have you found fundamentally of what’s going on with military members and identity theft and scamming?

Adam Darrah: Well, lots of things, unfortunately. You know, military members are in the crosshairs on multiple fields. We have people being targeted largely by romance scams, wherein, you know, they’re targeted for fraud. In other words, a person contacts them, is super nice to them, and all of a sudden needs money, just you know here and there, and they slowly work up till all the sudden next thing you know, you’re out five to six figures with this person disappeared. In other areas, their profile is impersonated to conduct other types of scams using their image, their job title and their picture. You know, people tend to trust people in military uniforms. And so they can actually become that person online. And then, you know, conduct onward scams,

Tom Temin: It’s almost like stolen valor used for financial gain.

Adam Darrah: Yeah, on a greater level, though, right? You know, you got some people that may dress up so they can get on a plane first, right? Stolen Valor. Or they want the extra attention while they’re walking around. But this is much worse. This is impersonating heroic men and women to rip people off. And so that has a lot of implications, as you can imagine.

Tom Temin: And on the issue of trying to scam the real military members coming from that vector. What is the vector that they get to them the most often? Is it social media? Is it phishing scams? Or how does it work?

Adam Darrah: Well, two areas that we’re seeing: Catfishing, and social media. They, you know, spray a lot against the wall to see what sticks. And so they’ll approach a military person on social media. You know, our proud men and women love to tout that they are members of the greatest military in human history. So they have their pictures up there, they have probably where they’re living. Bad guys approach and say things like, “hey, what’s up.” They become your friend, they take advantage of perhaps you’re away from your family, away from loved ones, and use that as a vulnerability — as a front door, a cracked open little door as an entry point. In the government circles, we call it a vulnerability and not in a negative sense. But you know, people prey on these vulnerabilities. And next thing you know, they’re asking for money, they’re asking for favors, gift cards. It could it could be anything.

Tom Temin: So that’s probably the most common. And I suppose for maybe younger service members, the initial disorientation of military life, for example, or the isolation that it brings in the different culture that you’re in might make them more vulnerable to schemes coming in from the outside that seem to normalize their life, perhaps? I’m not playing psychiatrist here, but I can imagine that might be the case.

Adam Darrah: We’re all humans, we’ve all been alone. We’ve all been away from home for the first time. We’ve all been in stressful environments. If you’re former military, you understand that when you first are separated from your loved ones, that it’s very stressful. You may or may not have made any connections as far as friends. And any downtime you have, you know, you hop on your phone, you hop on your computer, and you’re looking for connections. And these scammers, these fraudsters, these degenerates, are more than happy to become your friends.

Tom Temin: We were speaking with Adam Darrah. He is director of intelligence services at ZeroFOX. And is there anything that the military institutions themselves can do to protect members from this? What would you recommend they do?

Adam Darrah: The military, to its credit, has lots of resources available. For example, they have a military consumer site, there’s an FTC identity theft page for military members to talk to, you have your commanding officers to talk to. My main message would be, you know, hey, we’ve all been there. We’ve all been tricked. We’ve all been duped. Don’t be shy, don’t be ashamed. We’ve all been there. And so the most important thing any military member can do, if something doesn’t feel right, talk to somebody about. Talk to somebody with authority, or with expertise in this area. There’s a lot of help out there for military servicemen and women. In the military. you know, each branch of the military has its own support system to take care of you. Your financial institutions — we’ve even seen some financial institutions refund you from being scammed. So please don’t be shy. Don’t hide this stuff. You’re not alone. You’re not a loser. You’re not a quitter. Yes, it’s embarrassing. Let’s be honest, like, it’s very embarrassing, and it would be hard, but you know, whatever you do, don’t keep this from your commanding officers.

Tom Temin: Yeah. So in other words, this should all be part of basic training and indoctrination periods when people are new in there, and then they’ll have that training and knowledge for the rest of their careers.

Adam Darrah: I would hope so. I would hope that this would be just a section of the training. Absolutely.

Tom Temin: And at the next level, to the left, say, the IT departments and the people that provide services online to military members into the military organizations. From your standpoint at ZeroFOX, do you kind of look at the sources, the dark web and so forth, that are germinating these types of threats and maybe help organizations get to them before they get to the organization’s people?

Adam Darrah: Yeah, we do have deep and dark web coverage. But these romance scammers tend to operate actually in the clear web. But you know, they do offer tutorials, they do offer best practices, they will sell you their guides in the deep and dark web. But at the end of the day, it’s up to the end user. It’s up to those in charge of our military servicemen and women to educate, you know. That’s the most important thing. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not right. Let’s be honest, like strangers aren’t that nice. Especially we Americans are polite, I would say, but you know, we’re not gonna like, have you over for dinner with our children the first night and have you stay. I mean, there are a lot of red flags, and like, trust your gut on this. And if you don’t trust your gut, and if your gut has has failed you, then absolutely trust your trading and trust your commanding officers to help you flag this suspicious behavior.

Tom Temin: I’ve been waiting for 30 years to get my $20 million from Nigerian accounts. And they still haven’t come through yet no matter how many bank numbers I give them. But you also, in a white paper, have put together some of the pretty shocking statistics on this. How often it happens, the average loss, the losses that tally up. Give us some of the top line numbers so people can understand how big this threat really is.

Adam Darrah: Alright, well stand by. This may seem completely unbelievable. But after I say some of these numbers, you will perhaps understand why these degenerates participate in this scam. Number one, it works. Number two, just in the U.S. alone, $200 million were lost due to romance scams on their own. There have been attempts far back in 2014, there was a $5 billion attempt to scam people. But they ended up only getting $200 million. Like let that sink in. I mean, so these guys are relentless, they will not stop. And they’re very, very good at applying their tradecraft. You know, the average romance scam, costs people about $25,000 per stamp. $25,000. That’s a lot of money. And in some cases, our servicemen and women who are just entering their career, just starting their career within the first few years, $25,000 is a lot of money. It’s a lot of money to anybody. Let’s just be clear. So those are just some of the statistics. And it’s overwhelming. It’s overwhelming because it works.

Tom Temin: Yeah, the FTC received 700,000 consumer reports from service members, including veterans and active duty reservists’ family members, in a five year period. So this is really accelerating and ongoing.

Adam Darrah: Correct. And if you think about we have approximately a million man army — standing military — that’s an incredible amount. So you’re almost certain to be approached in some way, shape or form. And if it’s not by romance scams, it’s going to be by individuals, adversaries, who want to know more about you for other things. Although we’re talking mostly about financial losses, I would just add a word of caution that you are an attractive target for many reasons. US military, many reasons.

Tom Temin: Adam Darrah is director of intelligence services at ZeroFOX. Thanks so much for joining me.

Adam Darrah: Absolute pleasure, Tom. Thank you for what you’re doing.

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