JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO – LACKLAND, Texas --
Dating in today’s technologically savvy world seems to have become less personal. In many cases, finding someone to spend time with might be based on information obtained through dating websites, phone calls, texts, chats and instant messages.
The big question amidst the barrage of electronic information - is the person on the other end, someone you have never met, worthy of your time? Is the potential date being sincere and honest, or is disaster just one click away?
An Airman stationed in San Antonio, Texas, whom we will refer to as ‘Mark,’ recently found out things online are not always what they seem. In December, he was lured to a local hotel to meet a woman he met and had been communicating with online. Unbeknownst to him, he had become the victim of a catfishing scheme.
A catfish is a person who pretends to be someone they're not, using social media to create a false identity with the intent of scamming someone, or worse.
While catfishing is not against the law in Texas, a fairly new statute does make theft by deception and theft by force illegal, said Detective George Segura, a member of the San Antonio Police Department’s Vice Unit cybercrime detail.
In San Antonio last year, there were 340 reports of online impersonations, Segura said.
In Mark’s case, what began as a friendly online exchanged turned into a frightening experience which could have ended very badly had it not been for his supervisor.
When the Airman failed to report for work on Dec. 6, his absence was immediately noticed. His supervisor, Maj. Octavia Heard, said she knew immediately something was wrong.
“[Mark] has a history of being on time every day.” Heard said. “When he wasn’t at work, I asked had he notified anyone that he would be late or had an appointment. No one in the office could tell me where he was, and I told them to reach out to him and find out why he was not in. Once no one could reach him, I decided to go to his apartment and check on him because it was clear something was amiss.”
Concerned for her Airman’s safety, Heard and a non-commissioned officer went to the Airman’s apartment complex. She contacted the apartment manager and the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) to conduct a welfare check.
Her instincts were correct. Mark had been abducted by a group of men, was beaten and then driven around town in his own car to withdraw cash from Automated Teller Machines (ATMs). When it was found that he had no funds to withdraw, the men took the Airman to his apartment, collected his valuables and forced him to sell them at pawn shops.
Mark’s bad luck changed when the kidnappers returned to his apartment, with him in tow.
As the car entered the parking lot of the complex, Mark’s supervisor and the police were there completing the missing persons’ report. Heard saw the car and the Airman in the back seat. She ran to the vehicle, opened the back door and grabbed the Airman while the suspects were detained by police officers.
The alleged perpetrators were later arrested and charges are pending. Mark was taken to the hospital, treated for his injuries and released.
“Recovery for this Airman will be long,” said Master Sgt. Melissa Zollinger, First Sergeant, 25th Air Force Headquarters. "The emotional trauma inflicted will not be forgotten easily and will require continued support. We have also assisted ‘Mark’ in getting new housing, notifying financial institutions and setting up credit protection. We are taking care of him and will continue to until he is fully recovered."
Heard was reluctant to take credit for her heroic actions when she was recognized by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force on Dec. 19.
“I wouldn’t call it above and beyond,” said Heard. “I’m a caring person and I have always been the person that will go out of my way to take care of my family, friends, coworkers and troops.”
“I hope that this event reminds Wingmen to always be aware of each other and not to dismiss things,” she said. “We are never too busy to take a minute to check on each other. If you make the effort to know your fellow Airmen, you’ll know when something isn’t right. When you know something isn’t right, don’t hesitate to act. You never know what difference it will make.”
To avoid an experience like Mark’s, Segura said there are several general personal safety rules to remember.
First, when meeting someone you met online, arrange to meet in a public, well-lit area, he said. Always tell a friend where you are going and when, so someone knows where you are.
For the first meeting, Segura recommends meeting in a place you are well known, a restaurant or coffee shop where you are a regular and a staff member would recognize that you had been there.
Another thing to consider is meeting where you know there is video surveillance.
There are also things you can do before agreeing to meet someone in person, Segura said. “Anyone can play detective online.”
When someone you met online wants to meet, see if the images in their profile or email exist somewhere else online, Segura said. “Google Image Scan allows you to upload a photo and search for matches.” He said there are videos online that explain how to do it.
Segura encourages anyone who feels they are a victim of theft by deception, theft by force or online impersonation to call and report the incident. Once an incident has been reported, a case number is assigned and an investigation started, he said.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), millions of Americans visit online dating websites every year hoping to find a companion or soulmate. It is important to keep in mind that criminals use these sites as well, looking to turn vulnerable people into fast money through a variety of scams and ploys, in addition to catfishing. If you believe you are the victim of an online dating scam or any Internet facilitated crime, you can contact local authorities and file a report with the FBI at www.ic3.gov .