They were people who were using an online dating site to find romance. What they got was something else entirely.
The only consistent thing for users of the dating site (the actual site name is not listed in the indictment) were the lies they were told, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). These lies prompted people to send nude photos and their money to four people in South Carolina — two of whom were in prison at the time, according to an indictment.
Now all four are facing decades behind bars for their roles in a con, where they used sexually-explicit material and fear to “dupe their victims” and extort money from them, HSI reported.
The scheme involved meeting people on the dating site. From August 2017 to January 2018, these people were located across the country, according to the indictment which said they were in New York, Tennessee and Florida, among other places. During the investigation, law enforcement officers reported speaking to approximately 15 people who had been taken by the scam.
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Here’s how the scheme worked: A victim received a photo of their proposed date — naked. Then the victim was asked to send back a photo of himself — naked.
Then, from a day to a week later, each man would receive a phone call from a man who said he was a private investigator in South Carolina, according to the indictment. This “private investigator” told each man he sent nude photos to an underage person, and if the man did not want the police involved he would have to pay money to ensure their silence, or for other purposes, per the indictment.
The indictment shows that the private investigator told one man the underage girl who saw his nude photo was in “a psychiatric ward,” while another was told the minor “committed suicide, and and the family wanted money to help with funeral expenses.”
In the three primary instances cited in the indictment, the men paid up. Investigators reported that they and the other people who had been taken by the scam ended up paying $34,305.70, according to the indictment.
“These defendants scared their victims into sending them money by fraudulently convincing them they were in peril of criminal prosecution for child exploitation,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said in a news release. “This alleged fraud was not only cruel, it was also profitable for the defendants.”
These were not one-time only payoffs. The indictment shows that the South Carolina residents continued to pressure the dating-site users for more money.
Investigators said the men continued to pay, multiple times, via Western Union, Walmart and Green Dot MoneyPak cards, until one of them got homeland security involved, telling them he “was the victim of extortion.”
The South Carolinians’ online communications, texts and paper trail of money transfers and receipts proved to be their undoing.
Those records showed that money had been picked up in S.C. by Kristin Knight and Destiny Bishop, per the indictment. Both admitted to investigators they knew the money was “proceeds from a blackmailing scheme.”
Greer resident Knight and Bishop, of Greenville, were indicted on multiple charges, along with David Jones and David Duwayne Taylor. According to the indictment, Jones and Taylor were cellmates at Ridgeland Correctional Institution during the time of the scam, and were in possession of cellphones that contained evidence that incriminated them.
Records show that Taylor, of Easley, was released from prison in August, a month after Jones, of Greenville, was transferred to McCormick Correctional Institution, where he remains in custody.
Jones, Taylor and Knight, all 28 years old, and 21-year-old Bishop are each charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of wire fraud, according to prosecutors. The maximum sentence for each charge is 20 years in prison.
“These individuals allegedly chose their targets specifically to create vulnerabilities, seeking simply to make a profit through deceit and extortion,” HSI special agent Angel M. Melendez said in a news release.
The investigation is ongoing, and anyone with information can call 866-DHS-2-ICE.