A group of men targeted Navy sailors on Tinder by posing as women seeking a romantic relationship to trick the sailors into handing over thousands of dollars as part of a bank fraud scheme, prosecutors say.
Samari Smith, 20, of Newport News, Virginia, is the third man to plead guilty in connection with the plot to defraud the Navy Federal Credit Union, involving at least four other men including his brother, according to US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.
While prosecutors say dozens of Navy sailors were victims of the overall scheme, Smith was personally involved with targeting four Navy sailors on Tinder, while pretending to be women named “Arial”, “Ariella”, “Larina”, and “Elaine”, court documents show.
Smith pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud on Sept 13 and faces up to 30 years in federal prison, a news release from the attorney’s office says.
McClatchy News contacted Smith’s attorney for comment on Sept 14 and was awaiting a response.
Beginning in April 2021 through August of that year, Smith worked with a group of men, led by his brother Tequan Smith, to find Navy servicemen and account holders with the Navy Federal Credit Union, court documents state.
As part of the scheme, prosecutors say the men pretended to be Navy Federal Credit Union workers and reached out to account holders to get their banking information. With this information, the men would secretly gain access to the victims’ bank accounts in an act known as “phishing”, court documents state.
Another part of the scheme was to pose as women on dating apps and find Navy sailors who were subsequently lied to further, prosecutors say.
“Smith and his co-conspirators asked the victimised Sailors to withdraw and turnover funds – often under the guise of helping a relative in the Navy who was trying to send them money,” prosecutors said in the release.
In one instance, on April 13, 2021, Smith and others used Tinder and matched with a Navy sailor, who held the rank of a petty officer third class, while posing as a woman named “Ariella”, court documents state. Then, they began texting after exchanging phone numbers.
Afterward, the Navy sailor was notified of a fraudulent bank charge by who he thought was a Navy Federal Credit Union worker – but it was actually Smith and others, according to court documents. As a result, the sailor’s account was “compromised”.
Smith and others, while pretending to be “Ariella”, had told the sailor that a sister in the Navy needed help transferring money, court documents state.
When they had gained access to the sailor’s bank account, they transferred US$10,000 from his savings account to his checking account while telling the sailor that the money belonged to the made-up sister in the Navy, federal investigators say.
The sailor then met with Smith at a casino where he withdrew his own US$10,000 and gave it to him, court documents state. The whole time, the sailor believed he was helping the sister in the Navy transfer money.
The four sailors stationed in the Hampton Roads metropolitan area lost US$40,000 in total after Smith targeted them in similar ways, according to prosecutors.
Meanwhile, the “broader fraud conspiracy” led by Smith’s brother “caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraud loss” to dozens of Navy sailors, prosecutors say.
Smith’s sentencing is set for Jan 27, according to the release.
Newport News is about 70 miles southeast of Richmond. – The Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service