Tactical

ASVAB tutor scams target military prospects, Air Force recruiters say

Last summer, Air Force Tech Sgt. Tameka Paschal-Vassell’s phone rang with an unusual problem.

Hoping to join the military, the young woman on the line said, she’d been paying a recruiter to tutor her ahead of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB — the entry-level test that helps determine a person’s job prospects and qualifications.

The purported recruiter’s name, “Arionna Simone,” didn’t sound familiar. But the face was all too recognizable: it was Paschal-Vassell, in a photo pulled from her Facebook account. She was stunned.

“I was like, ‘We don’t charge for ASVAB tutoring. No recruiter’s supposed to be taking any money whatsoever, for any reason, from an applicant,’” Paschal-Vassell recalled. “And [the prospective recruit] was like, ‘Oh, no.’”

The call was Paschal-Vassell’s introduction to a burgeoning world of scammers preying on would-be military recruits, many of them teenagers, by appropriating the identities of real military recruiters. In the Air Force, an internal force protection system allows recruiters to report incidents of fraud and identity theft, but officials worry that many incidents still go unreported and unaddressed.

Recruiters with the largest social media reach and following tend to be top targets for scammers. Amid historic military recruiting challenges compounded by a dearth of willing volunteers, some recruiters worry that these bad actors will keep needed recruits from joining the ranks.

For Paschal-Vassell, the first confusing call from a prospect who’d been scammed was quickly followed by more — to date, she said, she’s fielded about 20 calls at her Glendale, Calif., office from would-be recruits all over the country wondering how they can collect on a range of military preparatory services they’ve paid for.

As she investigated, using screenshots and links provided by the victims, she found most had been contacted by a scammer through an apparently legitimate Facebook page: The ASVAB Advantage Study Group, with more than 23,000 members.

Scam accounts, including one who used both Paschal-Vassell’s profile photo and her last name, reached out to prospects to hawk services costing anywhere from $90 to upwards of $400, ranging from ASVAB tutoring to a special shuttle to a military entrance processing station (MEPS) for a physical evaluation. Air Force Times reviewed screenshots of CashApp refund requests showing some prospects shelled out hundreds of dollars for those services.

Often, Paschal-Vassell would get a call after those services failed to materialize and military hopefuls went looking for answers. She said she has evidence of at least five fraud victims who were scammed out of money through the use of her name or face on social media. One, she said, paid over $1,000 for services that included a shuttle to MEPS, a hotel stay and a “concierge swearing-in experience.”

“They paid the money, and then the shuttle never came,” she said.

Master Sgt. Leo Knight-Inglesby found he had a natural flair for social media recruiting. During his recent recruiting stint in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, his Instagram page, Air Force Adventure, rapidly accumulated more than 6,000 followers who loved his video reels and inspirational messages.

All the exposure, though, left him particularly vulnerable to impersonators. Knight-Inglesby said he’s had irate prospective applicants track down his wife’s social media account to berate her after finding out they’ve been scammed by an account using his face and name.

Even today, having completed his tour as a recruiter and returned to his previous work as a munition systems technician, Knight-Inglesby said he still finds clone accounts that he has to report to Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram.

Beyond the personal toll of having to police scammers and occasionally having angry victims come after his family, Knight-Inglesby worries the threat will keep recruiters off of social media, where the young Americans they most want to hire spend much of their time. He also fears the fraudsters will tarnish the image of military recruiting at a time when the institution needs to shore up trust.

“To put it into an applicant’s perspective, we lose so much trust in a climate right now when our recruiters are struggling to build trust with their communities [and] … foster relationships with the common populace,” he said. “It’s doing so much damage when they’re like, ‘I don’t know if I’m talking to a real person.’”

While the problem of recruiting scams may not affect the Air Force alone, the service does have system for addressing them. The service uses an online platform, known as “RICKY,” that allows recruiters to report fraud and impersonation incidents, said Master Sgt. Chris Balderas, the service’s superintendent for anti-terrorism and force projection at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas.

While the recruiters who spoke with Air Force Times argue instances of social media-based fraud are surging, Balderas said they tend to come in waves, and can total around two dozen or more per year.

Those reports come to Balderas’ office and are flagged to local leadership. They’re also distributed to Air Force Office of Special Investigation detachments as well as Air Force Northern, the service’s branch within U.S. Northern Command. The FBI also provides recruiters with a special portal for flagging fraudulent links and pages, Balderas said.

What happens after the reports are made is less clear. Balderas said he doesn’t get information on how the FBI follows up with specific reports, and while recruiters are also encouraged to notify local law enforcement of fraud, he isn’t made aware of cases that are prosecuted. Balderas and the recruiters said reporting fraud to social media platforms can lead to phony pages being closed down, but it’s all too easy for scammers to start new ones.

“We’re a three-man office trying to tell 1,300-plus [recruiters] to report these incidents,” Balderas said. “And to be completely transparent with you, I think there’s probably more out there that aren’t reported.”

Balderas wants to spread the word to recruiters to report anything that doesn’t look right.

“There’s no bad report,” he said. “If you think it’s suspicious, if you think it’s a problem, report it.”

He’s also trying to better inform the community of prospective recruits about the way military recruiters operate, and what they won’t do during the recruiting process. In a list he drafted, titled “10 ways you know you are working with a legit recruiter,” he listed some foundational operating principles — not all of which are well-known.

For example, according to the list, a recruiter will never ask for personal photos, use high-pressure sales tactics, or demand an application fee in the recruiting process. They should always be able to provide official government credentials and be able to communicate through official channels, like .mil email addresses, even if they use personal social media accounts as well.

Knight-Inglesby added that any prospects unsure if they’re dealing with a real recruiter can use the service’s “Aim High” mobile app, created in 2020, to request to be linked up with a legitimate local recruiter.

He feels the service can improve at spreading information to recruiters and prospects about the threat. But he also fears that a crackdown on recruiters’ social media use could hamstring their ability to connect with the people they need to reach.

“There are many people out there … who are willing to, in the most vile ways possible, get information or money from you,” he said. “But to remove that ability for our recruiters and all service components to use social media, I think that would be a horrible decision.”

10 ways to know you’re talking to a real Air Force recruiter

Here’s Master Sgt. Chris Balderas’ list of what to look for in a recruiter — and red flags of potential fraud.

  1. No application fees or costs: A legitimate Air Force recruiter will never ask you for money. There are no fees associated with joining the Air Force, including application fees. If someone asks for payment, it’s a scam.
  2. Government vehicles for transportation: If a recruiter offers you a ride, it will always be in a government vehicle with government plates. This is typically for transportation to and from the office or a processing station. Personal or unmarked vehicles are not used.
  3. Professionalism and respect: Real recruiters maintain a high level of professionalism. They should treat you with respect, provide clear and accurate information, and follow proper military protocols. Any unprofessional behavior is a red flag.
  4. No requests for personal photos: A true Air Force recruiter will never ask you for personal photos. Any request for such images, especially ones that are not related to official documentation, is inappropriate and suspicious.
  5. Identification and credentials: Recruiters should always be able to provide official identification and credentials. This includes a military ID card and any other official documentation that verifies their role as a recruiter.
  6. Official communication channels: Communication from legitimate recruiters will come through official channels, such as government email addresses (ending in .mil) and phone numbers. Be wary of communication through unofficial means like personal email accounts or social media.
  7. No pressure tactics: While recruiters are there to provide information and encourage enlistment, they should not use high-pressure sales tactics. Joining the Air Force is a significant decision, and legitimate recruiters understand the importance of making an informed choice.
  8. Thorough information and transparency: A real recruiter will provide comprehensive information about the enlistment process, benefits, commitments and any other aspects of Air Force life. They should be transparent and willing to answer all your questions.
  9. Official meeting places: Meetings with Air Force recruiters typically occur in official settings, such as recruitment offices or military facilities, but they should always be in uniform when meeting for an appointment.
  10. Follow-up and ongoing support: Real recruiters will follow up with you throughout the enlistment process and provide ongoing support. They should be available to help you with paperwork, answer questions and guide you through each step.

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