A series of official portraits, courtesy of the U.S. Defense Departments

A series of official portraits, courtesy of the U.S. Defense Departments DVIDS

Impersonations of Military Members on Social Media On the Rise, New Report Says

Be skeptical of that admiral who just asked you out on Twitter.

Social media companies intentionally make it very easy to set up new accounts and profiles. After all, the greater the number of users, the more the company is worth. This poses some challenges for the way the public forms opinions about the Defense Department. You see, the same convenience that allows you to join a new social network with no hassle has enabled online scammers to set up profiles impersonating members of the military, a trend that’s rising rapidly, according to threat analysis firm ZeroFox.

Last year, ZeroFox took down 40,000 social media accounts that impersonated military leaders, up from 1,000 three years ago, the company says in a new white paper. During that same time span, the FBI saw complaints about impersonations of government officials and employees rise 40 percent. ZeroFox expects another big increase this year.

Zack Allen, the company’s senior director of threat intelligence, says that military personnel make particularly attractive targets for fake profiles, especially when there’s a change in administration. 

“When there is a changing of commands or when there are now senior offices installed, whether it’s at a base or higher leadership within the government, we will see surges in impersonations of those senior military officers. That’s just natural in the sense that a lot of these officers are used to not being in the public sphere,” Allen said in an interview. “But when you get into these offices that are in the public sphere, that’s just more open source intelligence for these fraud actors to take your likeness, take your picture, look at your bio from the base website, construct these fake profiles and then go and create them and start engaging with people.”

Case in point, in December 2014, a tweeter purporting to be Ash Carter said he was “honoured and happy” [sic] to be nominated to the position of the Secretary of Defense. One problem: it wasn’t him but online prankster Tommasso Debenedetti. 

The vast majority of online military impersonations aren’t pranks or sophisticated information attacks by Russia or China, but rather simple financial scams from places like Nigeria. Yet such scams netted around $421 million over the last five years, Allen said. Many are “romance scams” whose victims believe they have found love with someone in the military. 

“In terms of the victimology, the military is always a hotbed. There’s a very romantic story about a military member who is perhaps deployed overseas. And they’re either divorced or lonely or want to get back home,” said Allen. 

He says that while the military has become better and faster at responding, the trend is likely to continue so long as social media companies continue to be lax in verifying the identities behind new profiles.