Jared Johns, a former soldier and father of two, thought he was swapping text messages with a pretty girl from a dating site. After getting calls from a spoofed police number and texts from outraged “parents” wanting to press charges against him for allegedly communicating with an underage girl, Johns — despite the fact he had done nothing wrong — was terrified that any resulting legal troubles could prevent him from seeing his two young sons. As Vince Beiser reports at Wired, what Johns didn’t realize was that he was the victim of a scam that would cost him everything.

Jared could never have been prosecuted for propositioning Caroline, for the simple reason that she didn’t exist. The pretty teenage girl Jared thought he was flirting with was, according to charges later filed by local authorities, two thickset, middle-aged, male inmates working contraband cell phones. Jared, it turns out, was just one of hundreds of US military service members and veterans suckered by a massive wave of catfishing scams launched from South Carolina correctional facilities over the past few years.

In May, Greenville’s chief of police convened a press conference to announce they had cracked the case: They were charging Dobbins and Smith with the blackmail and extortion of Jared Johns. Those charges could get each of them an additional 10 years behind bars. In a video posted to Facebook later that day, Kathy said through tears, “He may have been holding the gun, but it feels like they were the ones who took his life.”

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