Imagine fighting for your country in a war zone. It's lonely and dangerous and your computer is your only link to the outside world. The KING 5 Investigators have found that computer lifeline makes U.S. troops vulnerable to online scammers. We go inside a scam that targets military service members and find an Internet romance that reaches all the way from Western Washington to Afghanistan.
You can't imagine life in a war zone unless you’ve been there.
"Afghan, the people, Taliban. You don't really know whose Taliban because they hide among the people."
"You work seven days a week, there's no days off. There's no breaks"
"Just the stress of being out there. Working all the time, just busy, body's worn down."
U.S. Marine Brandon Paine describes how his seven month tour in Afghanistan beat him down.
"Just the stresses of being in a combat zone: boredom, combat stress. You miss your family, your friends. You're lonely ... you're looking for someone to talk to,” said Paine.
By day, he trained Afghan police. By night, he turned to his computer, desperate for a link to the world back home.
"Anything that comes along that might have the slightest bit of happiness, or lift your spirits, definitely something you're going to jump on right away,” said Paine.
For Paine it was a friend request from a beautiful woman on the social networking site Myspace.
"She said she thought I was good looking, wanted to talk to me, overall thing was she was a big supporter of the troops,” said Paine.
Paine didn't hesitate.
"I was like wow...this girl is gorgeous and I'll talk to her if she wants to talk to me...why not. She told me her name was Katie, that she was a model, 22 years old from Germany."
From Germany, but living in Spanaway. Washington. Her pictures were amazing, her messages intense. The friendship progressed to a cyber love affair. Then Paine came home.
He was finally back from his tour of duty and now stationed in southern California. Paine kept trying to meet the mysterious Katie, but days turned into weeks and then months and it never happened.
"There was always some excuse, something comes up, this bad thing happens, that bad thing happens,” said Paine. From a family death, to surgery, fate seemed to keep them apart, but Katie's devotion never wavered.
Paine says he had his doubts but he suppressed them because no one had ever shown him such love.
Katie’s gifts of engraved dog tags and letters gave Paine hope.
“They were just like a promise ring, so people would know I'm taken," said Paine.
And he gave her money.
"This first one was for $500 and this second one was for a thousand. She had me put it in her mom's name and said she could go pick it up because she lost her ID,” said Paine.
Katie promised to repay him claiming she was worth millions. She said embezzlers had frozen her funds.
Paine bought it all. But his parents were suspicious.
Becoming a target
And for good reason, says author Bridget Cantrell, an expert in combat stress and veterans affairs.
"They’re in danger all the time over there, we know that and so, for them, to have a little bit of connection with someone that's outside of that mindset is a relief to them, it's a respite, it's kind of creating sanctuary, but it's a sanctuary that's an artificial sanctuary,” said Cantrell.
Paine agreed to have a private investigator look into the mysterious Katie. It didn't take long for the fantasy to fizzle. Katie's address was actually for a mail center in Spanaway. The woman who picks up Katie’s mail is much older.
Paine also agreed to try a test. While the private investigator followed her to a mobile phone store, Paine stood by in California. The PI is secretly videotaping as Paine placed a call to his beloved Katie.
We asked the private investigator and Paine to explain what’s happening in the undercover video:
The PI: "And that's him calling. And she answers the phone...."
Paine: "She's like 'I can't talk right now, I'm in the T-mobile store.'”
PI: "She tells him she's at the store, trying to get her phone problem fixed."
Paine: "She's like 'I love you.' I'm like 'I love you too.'”
PI: "She says I love you too...and then she hangs up the phone.”
It was the confirmation Paine needed.
"I can’t believe that's the actual person it was coming from - that voice was coming from that person too. The voice doesn't match the face at all,” said Paine.
22-year-old Katie is actually a much older woman who is married with grandchildren, deeply in debt and undergoing her third bankruptcy.
"Katie is a 5-foot 7-inch gorgeous blonde girl and this is a very unattractive elderly heavyset woman,” said Paine.
As for the photos? They're pictures of models and other beautiful women widely circulated on the Internet. The question is - why was Paine so easily convinced by the scheme?
"They are vulnerable. They're feeling so many emotions to the height that we will never know what they go through, but their emotions are extreme,” said Cantrell.
Paine says he's moved on. It's what Marines are trained to do. But he wishes his combat training had included warnings about scams like this, a hazard as real as enemy bullets and IEDs.
"I'm not an easy person to fool. I'm trained to see through people's lies. So to not see through it, I had my own want to have something good in my life,” said Paine.
Paine says he reported the scam to police here in Washington and California but was told the case wasn't likely to go anywhere.
When we confronted the woman about the scheme, she admitted to all of it and vowed to never do it again.
As for military investigators, they tell us this scam is the reverse of what they usually see. Often the scammer is posing as a soldier at war who needs money and patriotic citizens open up their wallets.