This country has a long history of its citizens writing to servicemen and women who are deployed far from home. They’ve sent care packages to soldiers fighting in wars, sent movies and books to those who are deployed to remote places, and just sent pen pal-style letters to let soldiers know they are not forgotten.

These communications have even been passed between strangers, sent by individuals who heard of someone who was far from home and decided to send a thoughtful pick-me-up. The USO at one time organized entire lists of soldiers who could use a friendly letter, and citizens back home stepped up to the plate to offer their support.

Unfortunately, that long-standing history has been corrupted into something ugly in the digital age: the military romance scam.

Using Facebook and other social media sites, scammers reach out to unsuspecting users every single day, duping them into forming online relationships by creating accounts that use stolen names, ranks, and photographs. With so much information available online about our troops, it’s all too easy to steal a picture and a name, and use it to tug at someone’s heart strings. Even worse, since the victim can verify the existence of this soldier through online searches, it makes it all the more plausible that someone will fall for it.

“We cannot stress enough that people need to stop sending money to persons they meet on the internet and claim to be in the U.S. military,” said Chris Grey, Army CID’s spokesman, in an article on romance fraud.

Why are these scams so popular? Apart from our natural sympathy for anyone who is heroically serving the country while putting himself in harm’s way, there are also inherent factors about our soldiers that make it easy for scammers to avoid detection. Their far-flung locations across multiple time zones means they won’t be able to speak on the phone much, military regulations may prevent full-disclosure contact without raising our suspicions, and the fact that soldiers pack up at a moment’s notice means the scammer can discontinue the fraud once he gets his money then recycle the soldier persona he created in order to scam his next victim.

Here are some things the public needs to keep in mind about these scams:

  1. NEVER send money to a soldier you’ve met online, especially a wire transfer or prepaid credit card. This includes money for food, for plane tickets to go on leave, or to pay bills back home. The process might move slowly for soldiers who are deployed, but there are protocols in place for them to get everything they need.
  2. Soldiers will never need you to send devices like expensive satellite phones or cell phones; any soldier who’s allowed to speak on a phone for personal calls will have base access to one.
  3. Do not authorize a serviceman whom you’ve met online to use your accounts, like your email, your Amazon or PayPal, or your bank accounts. Again, they have mechanisms to use these accounts themselves; anyone who tells you that he can’t access his account while in the country but can somehow use yours is lying to you.
  4. This is vital: NEVER agree to receive a shipment from a soldier, either to hold for someone to pick up or to mail to someone else. Again, there is no legal reason that a US soldier can send the box to you but not to its intended recipient. If he claims he can only send mail to certain addresses (like yours) or says that it’s simply his personal belongings that won’t fit on the plane, it’s a lie and there’s a crime afoot.
  5. Don’t agree to pose as a fiancé or family member. Once again, there is no legal reason why you need to pretend to be someone you’re not. Even in cases of something as seemingly innocent as pretending to be a soldier’s fiancé in order to let the soldier have housing arrangements, that is a violation of military protocol and you shouldn’t be a part of it.

The unfortunate reality is that far too many people have already been scammed out of serious money because they fell for a sob story from someone posing as a soldier. The sad reality is you should never communicate with someone online who claims to be a member of the military.