U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials want service members to say, "I don't" to marriage fraud, warning that it is a federal crime and no laughing matter.

In an effort to prevent and deter these marriages, which basically offer lawful immigration status for pay, Special Agent Todd Siegel, of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations arm, warned that service members may become financially entangled with their fake spouse.

To authenticate the marriage, couples have joint bank accounts, and the spouse may be entitled to the soldier's basic allowance for housing or other military benefits, he said.

"They're going to be tied to this person for many, many years," Siegel said. "We've seen American citizens who have had their bank accounts cleaned out."

Marriage is one of the most common and clearest means for non-citizens to become a naturalized citizen. Roughly one million people become citizens every year, and a third of those do so through marriage. Agency estimates say at least five percent of these are fraudulent.

"Even if it's five percent, that's alarming ... it does harm to the lawful immigration system," Siegel said.

He could not provide military specific statistics.

When foreign nationals are involved, there is a national security risk as well, he said. The sham spouse could use their connection to gain access to service member's installation or sensitive information.

"We don't know the reason—are they simply trying to stay in this country, or do they have more nefarious purposes," he said. "Even one case could have drastic results."

HSI would not comment on any national security investigations, though Siegel called the scenario, "a realistic concern."

"We know our enemies are aware of this," he said.

Marriage fraud is not isolated to one area in the world but officials said it is more prevalent in Eastern Europe, Russia and the Ukraine.

ICE has partnered with the Defense Department in recent years to help get the word out. The lure of more BAH has attracted troops in the past.

"To a hardworking soldier it may seem like a good idea," Siegel said. "But it's not worth it."

For a service member, getting caught could mean federal prosecution and a sentence of up to five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. Under military law, the service member could also face, in severe cases, a dishonorable discharge and up to 10 years confinement.

It is not unheard of for the government to prosecute the participants in the marriages.

Joshua Priest, a Fort Riley, Kansas, private was sentenced in 2012 to ten months after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and wire fraud. He was also ordered to pay nearly $30,000 in restitution for the fraudulently obtained housing and subsistence benefits given married soldiers.

The Jamaican woman Priest married received the lighter sentence. She was given two years of probation and ordered to pay $2,600 in restitution to the Army for medical services to which she was not entitled.

A federal court in 2012 sentenced former sailor Jermar Jones to four years in prison after he arranged sham marriages between six sailors from his ship and illegal immigrants from his home country of Grenada, as well as Trinidad. The scheme was intended to obtain benefits for the so-called newlyweds, such as an easier path to citizenship.

The six sailors were ordered to repay $134,000 in benefits, and the four sham spouses were indicted.

The challenge for law enforcement officials is to prove the marriage is fraudulent, essentially the intent of the two parties, so it is more common to prosecute in the case of marriage rings where there are payments and paper trails for investigators to follow.

Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.

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