Retired Army Capt. Florent Groberg has received a lot of attention since receiving the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for bravery, in 2015.
But not all of the attention has been wanted.
Groberg, 38 of Frisco, Texas, said he has been targeted by online scammers who have impersonated him more than 100 times.
“They’re all scammers going out there going out there trying to scam these people from all around the world telling them like I’m stuck in Afghanistan,” Groberg told Military Times. “Or, I’ve divorced my wife, and she’s taken all my money. Or, like I’m going to come see you, But I need like $500 for a ticket.”
Groberg said that the reality is that he’s happily married and hasn’t been in Afghanistan since 2012. On Aug. 8, 2012, Groberg was seriously wounded after a suicide bomber detonated his vest while Groberg wrestled him away from his patrol in Asadabad, Afghanistan. His actions cost him nearly half of his left calf muscle, and ultimately led to his medical retirement in 2015.
Despite this reality, the impersonations persist, he said, including a situation currently being investigated by police in Florida. When individuals realize it’s a scam, they sometimes find the real Florent Groberg on the internet to vent their frustrations.
“Sometimes there are people who send me emails to my personal email calling me an [expletive], a content scammer,” Groberg said. “When that happens, I send it to the [Federal Bureau of Investigation].”
The FBI told Military Times it’s unable to comment on specific cases.
Troops and veterans frequently spoofed
Military personnel are increasingly impersonated online by those seeking to commit financial fraud, said Edward LaBarge, assistant director of the Army Criminal Investigation Division’s Cyber Directorate.
“We don’t see too many military members being the victims in this category,” LaBarge told Military Times in an email. “Rather, we see non-[Defense Department] members who fall victim to romance scams where the victim thinks they are talking to a service member, but they are really talking to a scammer who is posing as a high-ranking service member.”
According to a Federal Bureau of Investigation report, 12,827 online impersonations of government officials in 2020 cost victims more than $109 million. While the number of incidents is down slightly from 2019, it’s still up nearly 15 percent from 2018. Since 2017, according to a report from cyber security company ZeroFox, impersonations of government officials are up 40 percent overall from 2017, with that number is expected to rise.
“The data mentioned is just a slice of what has been collected, considering how many incidents go unreported,” the ZeroFox report on Military Scams says.
According to LaBarge, a favorite of online scammers are high-ranking military officials who scammers claim are overseas. The scammers replicate online profiles already in existence, stealing what pictures and biographical information that is unsecured, then scammers “cast” until they get a bite.
“They will talk to everyone in hopes that they will find someone who will be willing to help them,” LaBarge said. “They like to impersonate overseas service members and ask the potential victims to help them get back home by sending them money.”
A recent example of this kind of high-level impersonation occurred in January. Last month, Task and Purpose reported that U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe, commander of the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia, had his account duplicated on Facebook.
The fake account, masquerading as Donahoe, reported the married general from New Jersey as single, living in Texas, and originally hailing from Syria.
In March, 2021, Stripes reported that former commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, retired Army Gen. Scott Miller, was impersonated nearly 900 times online in 2021 alone.
These instances are not the first instances of online impersonation by romance scammers, nor will they be the last, says LaBarge.
The issue is so prevalent that an entire U.S. Army CID web page is dedicated to providing information to those scammed by fake servicemembers. According to the Army, CID receives “hundreds” of such complaints a month.
Beware dating websites
According to LaBarge, victims typically encounter scammers and military imposters via dating websites. The reason for both using a dating website and posing as a service member, according to ZeroFox, is trust. Those frequenting dating sites seek to build a trusting relationship and connection, while the U.S. military has been the most trusted institution in America for decades.
Once establishing trust, scammers move on to their fundamental objective: money. Financial asks, says LaBarge, are a dead giveaway of a scam.
“An example is when the individual professes their love almost immediately or needs money,” LaBarge said. “Individuals should never send money, and it should be an instant red flag if money or other monetary instruments are brought up.”
A woman told Military Times she filed a police report in July 2021 in Florida claiming she was scammed out of money by someone claiming to be Groberg. According to the woman, who asked not to be named because she is the victim of a crime, their relationship began online in 2020 after the purported Groberg contacted the woman online.
The purported Groberg told the woman that his marriage was just for show and wanted to be with her.
After the woman felt that the purported Groberg had shared enough details to verify his identity, she says that he began to ask her for money. According to the woman, she eventually sent several thousand dollars in gift cards for items such as insulin shots for a child and eventually for flights so that the alleged Groberg and her could finally meet.
The woman filed a report with the Miami-Dade Police Department on July 21, 2021. The case is still open, police said Tuesday.
Groberg said that, as with the other incidents of being spoofed, he has never communicated with her.
Better protection needed
Groberg said there should be a remedy for online impersonations.
“I had to verify my own identity to get a blue checkmark,” Groberg said, explaining a verification process for Twitter and Facebook. “But people can go out there and put my name [to create an account] and not have to verify the identity? What system allows you to just create profiles on social media without having to prove who you are?”
Groberg said he believes that social media companies are probably overwhelmed with the volume of content that flows across their platform daily. However, Groberg says the technology exists to create an algorithm or check images already used on the platform.
“Doing that alone will probably eliminate 85 percent of fake profiles on social media,” Groberg said.
Until a fix is created to eliminate duplicate and fake accounts, the problem is not only likely to persist but get worse.
“As one account goes down, more pop up, creating a never-ending cycle,” LaBarge said.
James R. Webb is a rapid response reporter for Military Times. He served as a US Marine infantryman in Iraq. Additionally, he has worked as a Legislative Assistant in the US Senate and as an embedded photographer in Afghanistan.