Transcript - Interview with Kathy Waters & Lt. Colonel Bryan Denny
Full Transcript: Stolen Valor, Stolen Hearts: Military Romance Scam
Coming up on AARP - The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:02] Bryan Denny:
Well I don't think anybody ever expected a lot in retirement. I don't think anybody ever thinks
that wow, this is going to happen and they're going to get caught up in a scam where people are, are basically trying to
use your identity to take advantage of people. Never in a million years, did I think that would happen.
[00:00:17] Bryan Denny:
I'm most surprised by the cruelty of, of humans to other humans, to be able to do this to somebody.
All right, welcome back to AARP - The Perfect Scam. I am your host, Will Johnson, and I'm here in the
studio with AARP's Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale. Frank?
[00:00:33] Frank Abagnale:
Good to be with you, Will. Thanks.
All right, Frank, we are talking this week about a scam that involves identity theft is really what it
is, and social media, and in particular targeting people who are in the military. In general, the image of the military
man or woman in the uniform is often used by scammers, right?
[00:00:53] Frank Abagnale:
Absolutely. And as I remind people all the time about social media, I'm not on social media,
but I remind people the three things to remember about being on social media is one, you never want to tell someone where
you were born; two, you never want to tell someone your date of birth; and third, you do not want to post a picture on
social media of a picture that I would say would be a driver's license, passport, graduation type photo.
All right, well let's get into today's story. We'll talk a lot more about social media and advice and
tips you can pass along. This week we're going to tell you the story of a stolen identity, and the astonishing ripple
effect it had on the lives of countless scam victims.
Our story starts with Sharon. She's single, retired, and spending some time connecting with people
online. She meets a handsome man in the military. He's overseas and they're unable to meet in person, but Sharon
realizes he's more than just a passing interest or an online connection. Overtime, he expresses the same feelings for
Sharon and the relationship blossoms. It's not long before there's talk of marriage, a house, a new life together. Sharon
doesn't tell a lot of people about her new love interest, but she does tell one of her friends and the daughter of her
friend. Her name is Kathy. Sharon tells Kathy all about this new love interest, her future husband. His name is Ross
Newton. She's clearly excited, looking forward to a future together with a new love. It really just feels right. He's
kind and responsive, a family man with a son and full of ideas for himself and her and their new life.
She told me a story how she met a military man and he was, been deployed, and so he was going to be
coming back home around the holidays. He had bought her an engagement ring but wasn't going to bring it until he saw her
Kathy works fulltime and has twin 13-year-old girls. She's a busy woman. But when Sharon tells her about
the man she had met online, Kathy's eager to know more about him.
He was getting ready to retire. He had a son, she was ready to be a stepmom, and wanting to buy a house
here in in Clovis, California. And so she had even put half a down payment on a house.
Sharon's not just having an online relationship. She's making real plans with him. Kathy is pleased to
know that one of her mom's friends has found love, and she decides to learn more about him.
And I found his account on her Facebook account, so I looked it up and I saw that the gentleman was in
a uniform, but the, on the name badge it looked like it said Lenny or Denny, which was not the name she gave me. She
gave me the name of Ross Newton.
Kathy's not sure what to do. She doesn't want to be meddling in Sharon's love life, but she just can't
shake whatever the feeling is that she has. She starts to wonder more about the man in the profile photo, Ross Newton.
She wonders who he really is, why can't he meet up in person, and why does his name say Denny on his shirt? She feels
like she needs to do something. She decides to start with that name, Denny.
I didn't mention anything to her. I just kind of looked it up myself, before, because I didn't want
to be wrong and lead her down a wrong path. So you know I, I looked at it and I looked up "army man Denny," and Bryan's
picture came, LinkedIn picture came up.
So she finds the same picture on LinkedIn, but it's not Ross Newton. This man is Bryan Denny, that's
the name on the man's shirt. Maybe it's the fact that money's involved, maybe it's the fact that Sharon's never met Ross
in person but he's already bought an engagement ring. All of it starts to cast a shadow over Sharon's story. Kathy
decides she has to keep digging, and she sends Bryan Denny a message on LinkedIn and eagerly waits to hear back.
Bryan Denny has spent his career in the military; 25 years serving his country all over the world.
[00:04:35] Bryan Denny:
A lot of time in Germany, a lot of time in the Middle East, and everywhere in the states from
Fort Stewart, Georgia, to Fort Lewis, Washington.
Finally, after almost three decades in the military, a life on the road away from home and family and
friends, he's back looking forward to the next phase of his life. He's home with his family for the first time in a long
time and looking at various options thinking about how he can transition back to civilian life and keep giving back.
Service is engrained in everything he does. So in June 2016, he's doing what a lot of us would do. He starts looking on
LinkedIn, looking for opportunities and making connections.
[00:05:10] Bryan Denny:
I'd been working LinkedIn to update my profile, looking for a job and this kind of thing, and I
got a note from a lady going, "Hey I, I think you and I have been talking on another site, and I think you're coming to
visit me," and I'm like, you know, what? That's crazy.
This is all months before Kathy reaches out about Ross Newton and Sharon, but it's the beginning of a
long saga that will overshadow Bryan's life.
[00:05:31] Bryan Denny:
She said, "I'd really like to talk. Here's my number." And I'm like, "I don't really feel
comfortable with that," and she says, "Well I'd like to talk to you about you know, this conversation I've been having
with a guy that says he's you." And she sent me a picture of airline tickets, said he had sent her that said he was
flying in to see her in, in Canada, the next weekend. And I'm like, okay, I'm calling. And and that's kind of
how it started.
As you can tell, the message comes from out of the blue. Bryan doesn't know anything about it or why
this woman seems to think he's coming to see her. He keeps messaging with the woman who tells him to go on Facebook
where she's found his image and name on more than just a few profiles.
[00:06:09] Bryan Denny:
Sure enough, using the same picture, my exact name that were really double digits in profiles
that were using my pictures and, and, and had a variety of friends and contacts and it was all pretty, pretty
chilling to, to see that kind of stuff.
These were all accounts that Bryan did not set up; accounts he knew nothing about. But there he is
smiling for the camera and with a pit in his stomach, Bryan digs further into the profiles and discovers entire fake
timelines with images of not just himself.
[00:06:41] Bryan Denny:
One of the favorite pictures is of me and my son, and he's in a Boy Scout uniform and we're
on the front porch of our house, or me and my son, you know, hanging out on the farm with horses.
That first LinkedIn message was the first of hundreds and maybe thousands that Bryan would eventually
reply to on Facebook, LinkedIn, and a host of dating sites, and they're all coming from women, mostly women who claim
to have some type of online relationship with him. Women who had given money and gifts and romantic intentions, not to
Bryan, but scammers. Scammers who were using Bryan's image and name to create fake accounts and lure victims.
[00:07:18] Bryan Denny:
You can weave a pretty good story about, you know, here's a guy in a uniform, and now he's
deployed overseas and his son's a good kid, a Boy Scout, and they've got horses and now he was injured in a horse-riding
acer--, accident while he was in boarding school, and he needs money, and oh, I can't help him because I'm deployed on a
humanitarian mission and if someone could help him, I would really appreciate it, and you know, people, people want to
help a soldier out that's deployed and they kind of buy into that.
Bryan does what he can to control the damage, to let hopeful suitors know that it's a scam, that it's
not his account, and he's not looking for money or love or anything.
[00:07:53] Bryan Denny:
I break up with someone in kind of in a weird kind of way once a week. I'm the guy who, I'm the
bearer of bad news who says, yeah, you've been scammed.
Bryan's life becomes a nightmare, and while he learned how to respond to people and try to convince
them it's not him, that it's a scam, it takes a toll. And even trying to help clear that air with victims takes on its
[00:08:13] Bryan Denny:
Yeah, it's a fulltime job. You know, you try to be a little comforting, but you know, that just
kind of invites more contact, so it's really a double-edged sword in terms of how much you, you respond to folks.
And ultimately, it's not just Bryan who's impacted by the scams.
[00:08:28] Bryan Denny:
Yeah, it's been tough. My folks don't, didn't quite understand why that they were why they
were getting calls, but it's been something I've had to explain to my family a couple times that, you know, this is,
this is a real thing, and it's really happening.
Bryan's learning that identity theft can invade every part of your life in ways that you can't imagine.
[00:08:47] Bryan Denny:
Yeah, you don't know what you've lost really. I mean ultimately in the end of the day, it's
for me it started out as about 12 pictures; now it's probably about 50 pictures that get used and, and circulated
around, but you don't know what you've lost in terms of control of your, your, you know, your accounts and your
banking information, credit card information, and just what else has been given up. But you know, end of the day, it's
it's a lot of pictures for me.
You, you weren't necessarily the victim of, of banking scams or, or or a financial scam, but correct
me if I'm wrong, but you certainly lost, I mean just this idea of your, your image being out there is enough to freak,
freak anyone out.
[00:09:29] Bryan Denny:
Yeah, that, that's it. I mean I, I financially I'm, I didn't lost anything, but the fact
that my image has been used to take advantage of people and to hurt people, images of my family, lots of phone calls,
to my folks, people trying to track me down, lots of messages every day, you know people trying to say this is what
happened and you know, do you know this is going on?
And for Bryan, it's not just the impact on his life. The countless messages and conversations with
strangers who've lost money and are heartbroken, it's all wearing on him.
[00:10:05] Bryan Denny:
And, and again, just to know that your images or whatnot are being used to hurt people, that
really cuts a--, across the grain with me. I spent 26 years, you know, wanting to defend people, and safeguard human
life, and now, you know, your, your images are being used for purposes like this, and you are completely alone. And,
you know, it's feel, you feel like you're like knock--, trying to knock down windmills against giants like against
Facebook and and Instagram there, and Google and there's little, and there's little response from them in terms of,
you know, how to fix things.
So back to Kathy. She reaches out to Bryan on LinkedIn hoping to untangle whatever's going on with her
mom's friend, Sharon, and the man that she knows as Ross Newton.
[00:10:52] Bryan Denny:
She wrote me, she wrote me and said, hey, you know, a friend of her mom's has been scammed. She
just wanted to confirm that I was a real guy and that I'd never had contact with her mom's friend.
And Bryan wrote me back saying, "I am aware it's been happening for about the past six months," and
so he said, "Yeah, there are, you know it's not just under my name, it's under different names." I said, "Well this
guy's under Ross Newton." He said, "Yeah, look up Mike Denny, Steve Denny." So I did, and I found numerous accounts
of, with Bryan's picture. It was phenomenal.
Eventually, Kathy decides she has to let Sharon know that her future husband, her dream of a new life,
a new home, a new family, it's all a scam.
So I collected about seven or eight accounts, with Bryan's picture, and I sent them to her on
Facebook messenger, and I let her know this is what's going on, obviously there's a bunch of different accounts that
they're using. I don't know if it's the same person or not. At that time we had no idea. so she was pretty shocked and
of course upset. You know they're, that's her whole life is now considered a lie, that, that everything's been told to
her and she's going to move and she's going to be a stepmom and you know, it's just so, it's very hard for her to all
take in, and of course, you know when she confronts the scammer, the scammer will say things like, you know, oh, no,
no, no, he stole my photos, you know, I'm the real guy and but she finally came to the conclusion that it was a scam
and has slowly gotten over it over the past couple of years.
And how much money had, had she sent to him?
she sent about thir--, between 32 and 35,000 dollars total.
Okay. Money that he was saying he needed for one thing or another overseas, I'm guessing.
Yes, yes, sent money for airline tickets, sent the half a payment for the house, sent money for his
son that needed it for school, yeah.
At this point, Kathy's digging into just Facebook, none of the other possible sites where Bryan's
profile could exist.
That was the first place we started looking. I never thought to really look anywhere else, 'cause I
really didn't know how big this was.
Bryan Denny's clearly not alone when it comes to scams like this one. Christopher Gray is Director of
Public Affairs for US Army Criminal Investigation Command based in Quantico, Virginia. Over the past five to six years
his office has dedicated hundreds of hours to the issue, talking to thousands of victims who have been targeted by
scammers using similar techniques. He says most of the victims are women, between 40 and 80 years old.
[00:13:17] Christopher Gray:
The US military is used in this scams worldwide, not only in the United States. I've,
I've dealt with victims in Australia, Japan, Canada, Great Britain, they, they're seen as someone who's respected.
they have a steady income, a steady paycheck. They're honorable. most of the times during the, in good shape, that type
of thing, so and a lot of people are patriotic and, and the criminals know that, so they play on their patriotism, and,
and people want to be involved with the military, especially nowadays and, and help them out as much as they can, so, so
they, they become victims of the scam. The, the, the, the suspects come up with all type of scenarios, and they start
out, routinely they start out very small; I need $100 or I need you know, $50 for a telephone so I'll be able to talk to
you and we'll be able to stay in touch better. I don't have a computer, can you send me money for a laptop computer? Once
they find a victim, and they're actually hooked, then
they'll start, the, the, the larger scams where hey, I'm in love with you, let's get married, I'm coming home, oops,
I was in an automobile accident in, in Syria or wherever, the military's not taking care of me. I'm in the hospital,
and the, and the scenarios just continue and continue to change until they drain the, the victim of all their money.
And, and it's just incredible of how many scams they will come up with for one individual, and that person will
continually give the money.
Scams have become a big concern for the military. He's seen firsthand the devastating impact it can
have on victims.
[00:14:54] Christopher Gray:
I've talked to a woman who got a second mortgage on her home and lost $75,000. I talked
to a woman one day at $425,000 she'd lost to someone she'd never actually met or talked to even Skyped or video chat.
She just talked to on the phone. $425,000 and I went down to, to talk to a couple of the agents about it, and I, I
was, it was just incredibly surprised that she'd lost that much money and had been scammed that, that, that badly, and
one of the agents told me, I got, I got a case I'm working on right now, $450,000. And it, and it seemed at the time
the victims didn't really care about the money, they wanted to find that person. They were so much emotionally attached
and so much in love with this, with this concept is what it is, that they, they just wanted to find out if this
soldier was real or, or were they really being scammed. They, they really, the money was a, was a second afterthought
Digging into Bryan's profile, Kathy is also finding out how big the problem is, but it will take weeks
and months to reveal the true extent of the scam.
Yeah, so I started looking into it a little bit more, and I messaged Bryan again and told him, you
know, "I can't believe this, I'm finding all of these different accounts," and so I didn't start documenting at that
time. we just kind of looked for them. If I couldn't get them removed on Facebook after I reported them, I would
send them to Bryan to get removed. We didn't have much progress with that, probably about a 50/50 when Bryan tried to
turn them in. I had about a 30% success rate of getting them removed.
It's like Whack-a-Mole at this point. One profile goes up, they get it removed, and another one goes
up. And as she's doing all this work, Kathy starts to come across other faces, other names with multiple profiles and
By then I had seen many of the same faces on Facebook that are being used for scams. A lot of
different military personnel and doctors and so I knew it was a lot larger than what we thought.
But Kathy's not satisfied with her progress. She's got an inkling of how big this problem is now, and
she wants to find out who's behind it.
Bryan and I weren't sure at the beginning if it was just maybe one person that had his picture, or if
it was you know, really like almost a town full.
After work, weekends, whenever she finds the time, Kathy investigates. She researches and she starts
to understand more and more about how the scams work.
What they do is they'll post a couple of pictures say of Bryan, and they get a couple of victims,
if not two or three hundred, and you know interested, and 'cause they'll, they'll approach the women. The women don't
usually come and approach them. So they'll approach them. These women will see the pictures, they'll start talking in
Facebook messenger, and then they'll move them over to a whole 'nother chat. By then, a lot of times the scammers will
delete the account, so sometimes they leave it up, sometimes they don't.
Kathy gets so deep into the research and the scams that she starts to learn about the criminals behind
them. She starts untangling the flow of money, where it comes from and where it's going.
It's never usually just one scammer working this. They usually have other people working with them,
and that, you know, either people in their own country. they also use like third party or mules is what they call
them, which are the money laundering, to help move the money. The third party people, a lot of them are victims
themselves. And they just think that they're trying to move the money for their, the man they love, or the scammer, as
a favor to, to them.
Sometimes they'll give some story, you know, that that family member needs to send money, can they
please put it in their account, into the victim's account to move it? So there's a lot of different scenarios that can,
that can go into that.
Kathy spends a lot of time talking and working with Bryan. She learns a lot about the impact it's had
on his life.
People think about, you know, they only think about oh, his pictures, you know, are stolen and being
used. It's a lot more than that. not only is his own photo in there, but his wife, his son, they, they
always say the wife died, rarely they're divorced, but every once in a while, and then the pictures with him and
his son they use as part of their story, and, and at that time his son was a, was a minor and that affected him
greatly, not to mention if these women find Bryan online, on Facebook, and Bryan did a lot of different things with
the military, he's a part of a lot of different groups, so people post sometimes the different things that he's going to
be doing in the area, and Bryan has no idea if a scam victim is, you know, having a hard time maybe disconnecting
and will show up someday where he's at. I mean it's just, there's a lot more to it than just a picture being stolen.
[00:19:43] Bryan Denny:
Well I don't think anybody ever, you know, expected a lot in retirement, you know, kind of
how things would go, but I don't think anybody ever thinks that wow, this is going to happen and they're going to get
caught up in a, a scam where people are, are, are, are basically trying to use your identity to take advantage of
people. Never in a million years did I think that would happen.
But Bryan finds a true ally in Kathy. She has her own theories on why photos of military servicemen
and women are so appealing to someone looking for a romantic connection.
They feel like they owe them, you know, because the, the military men and women go out and they put
their lives on the line for us, and there's nothing more than what American, good Americans want to do is help a soldier
out, and that is a big part of this, and who, what soldier would lie to them? Who would be a scammer like that? Because
they, they don't realize that it's some other person behind the pictures.
Kathy and Bryan start keeping a record of everything, every account they close down, every new one that
pops up, and eventually they decide it's time to take all of it to a Congressional Committee and take it to Facebook to
report what they found.
[00:20:48] Bryan Denny:
I completely credit her for, you know, the, the meetings with Facebook, meetings on the
Hill. Kathy's just been tremendous in, in terms of you know, getting this going and getting it the attention
I think it, it ought to receive. So yeah, Kathy's been phenomenal.
They send an initial report to Facebook and then another, and then two more quarterly reports with
extensive details of their investigation.
I made sure that every report that we did, we sent off to Mark Zuckerberg and Cheryl Sandberg. I
had a signed, a return receipt back from their office, and then I also sent it to all of the Board of Directors
as well as the team that we work with, in Facebook. Now I may get the signed receipts from them, but are they
laying their eyes on it? I don't know.
But you are sitting down with some people from Facebook it sounds like, too. Maybe not Zuckerberg
and Sandberg, but others.
They're hoping they can start to move the needle, just two people working with a multi-billion dollar
social media company, but they do have their ear. The fight has given Kathy insight into a world she didn't know
existed, and she's determined to keep fighting to expose the extent of these scams.
I realized how many people needed help, and how many I could educate, and so I just really took
to it. I, I couldn't believe to hear the stories, women commit suicide, and men, commit suicide over stuff like
this. it was just, it was appalling to me, and so if I can provide as much ed--, education and as much advocacy
that we can, and if Bryan and I can get in there and change a law that can help prevent some of the scamming that's
online, I, I couldn't think of a better thing to do. And Bryan fought for his country for 26 years. He retired
and fell into this right away, and so it's, it's a form of helping out the military too. there's a lot of
other victims out there, but to see their names, their children, their families, up there online trying to,
and, and used in vain, yeah, that's, that's why I stick with this.
In the meantime, you'll probably see social media CEOs making trips to Washington to answer questions,
but for Bryan, that's just spectacle.
[00:23:03] Bryan Denny:
It is, it is satisfying, that they get called to talk about what is going--, what's going
on, but again, there's a lot of talk and I, you know, the first time I saw that, I'm like, you know, I don't know that
they're even aware that, that this is a real thing, that this has happens to real people. they're so far
detached from the problem set. It's, it's, there's a level of indifference or ignorance in terms of the magnitude
of people that this affects on a daily basis.
Christopher Gray with US Army Criminal Investigation Command makes a good point about these scams.
When they say they need money for one thing or the other, the stories don't mesh with the reality for most men and
women in the military.
[00:23:44] Christopher Gray:
The military is very well taken care of, the US military service people. when they're
overseas, even in a combat zone, they do have access maybe not every day, but they do have access to cyber cafes
or, or the mail system. they've always had mail since, for years they've, you know, the mail comes and goes,
so when you're talking with someone and they say, "Hey, I'm on a top secret mission, I can't communicate with you, you
can't send me a letter, you, I can't call you because I'm doing all this clandestine work," number one, the
military member would not be telling someone they're on a top secret mission or on a clandestine mission, and number
two, there's a lot of support mechanisms already in place for the military, so those are just ways for the, the
suspects to hide behind their scam. And the other thing is, you know, the, the military medical system is really
good. If you're wounded in a combat zone, the military takes care of you, they fly you out of there, they put you
in the hospital, I mean it's, it's taken care of. That's part of your main benefit as a service member. so when
you hear those type of things, and, and that, that a commander has seized my bank account and I can't, I can't, I
can't get my assets from my bank, and I need money, those type of things, it's just not true.
And if you really want to make sure about someone, Christopher Gray has another good tip.
[00:25:02] Christopher Gray:
If you're talking with someone who claims that they're in the military, they're overseas,
etc., ask that person to send you an email. Every mem--, every military member across the United States has an email
account. Every single person in the military. And that account ends with dot mil. M-i-l. Short for military. And
nothing following that. It's ".mil" and if they can't do that, again, they're not in the military and they're scamming
One final note; Kathy and Bryan have focused on Facebook and Instagram, but that doesn't mean they
aren't trying to raise the issue with other social media and dating sites.
We have sent tons of letters out to the different platforms, and I've either gotten no response. One,
I think it was Zeus, wrote me back, very nice, said, you know, that they are working on this different program, and
it was for military but we never got a meeting with them or anything like that.
For now, Bryan and Kathy will continue to search for his image, shut down accounts, and reply to
lovelorn victims until something changes.
So Frank, I mentioned in this episode that it's a little bit like playing Whack-a-Mole for, for
Bryan and Kathy who are fighting this problem for him, and Kathy's amazing; this woman coming in and helping him
out and seeing this problem. She takes it on, but this, this idea of going to social media companies and reporting
fake profiles, it's an uphill battle.
[00:26:23] Frank Abagnale:
Absolutely. And I would challenge anyone that's listening today, to simply go to Twitter
or Facebook and type in my name. It's Frank Abagnale. A-b (as in boy)-a-g-n-a-l-e. And you will find that there are
thousands of people on there that use my name every single day. They're obviously not me, you can tell by the picture
corresponding to the name, but they use my name. I've written Facebook, I've written Twitter and asked them to have
those taken down; never got a response, they've never removed it, and there's just constantly more and more people
using my, my name on there.
And you are not officially on Twitter.
[00:26:58] Frank Abagnale:
I'm not on any social media.
You're not on social media.
[00:27:00] Frank Abagnale:
That's not surprising.
[00:27:02] Frank Abagnale:
And there's no other Frank Abagnales out there that you're aware of?
[00:27:05] Frank Abagnale:
The only body with the same last name, Abagnale, is, is related to me somehow, a cousin or
someone like that, and there's certainly no Frank Abagnale that's out there. So they're just using my name, 'cause they
popularized by the movie, and they use it but o--, obviously they say all kinds of things, they do all kinds of
things on there, but it's not me.
You think there are ways that we can protect ourselves and still be on social media?
[00:27:28] Frank Abagnale:
Yeah, I think we can, if we just choose to use it smart. You know, I have three sons and
five grandchildren; they like social media. They're on Facebook. They enjoy doing that, but I have taught them as
their father and their grandfather what things to put on social media, what things not to put on social media, you
know, not to display photographs of themselves like that, not to tell people where they were born and their date of
birth, and to be a little private about their private information, that they have no reason to be discussing
on Facebook or sharing with people on Facebook.
All right, Frank, thanks once again for talking about social media. It's one that comes up a lot on
this show, but we do need to address it and continue to talk about it. We'll talk to you next week .
[00:28:07] Frank Abagnale:
If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or scam, don't
hesitate to call AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline
at 877-908-3360. Many thanks to our producers Julie Getz and Brook Ellis, also audio engineer Julio Gonzales, and of
course, my cohost, Frank Abagnale. For AARP - The Perfect Scam, I'm Will Johnson.
END OF TRANSCRIPT