NEW YORK, New York (CNN) -- It was a scam involving green cards and greed, prosecutors said Thursday.
Federal authorities have arrested 33 couples and charged them with marriage fraud.
Dozens of young Eastern European women have been accused of marrying U.S. sailors not for love but for the right to stay in the United States. The sailors received marriage benefits they were not entitled to, court papers said.
In recent days, federal authorities have arrested 33 couples in eight states, including New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia and California, and charged them with marriage fraud.
One woman taken into custody Wednesday by U.S. marshals in Queens, New York, was found in an apartment with her boyfriend. Handcuffed and put into a police car, she denied the charge, saying, "It's not an illegal marriage."
Agents with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service said the sailors were in on the scam, which ultimately cost the Navy about $500,000. Watch a report on the investigation »
"What we see are small pockets of friends forming this conspiracy," said Samuel Worth, special agent in charge of the Naval Criminal Investigation Service in Norfolk, Virginia.
The sailors, based at Naval Station Norfolk, are said to have met the women at bars and restaurants in nearby Virginia Beach or were set up by Navy buddies.
In some cases, documents show, the couples married within hours of meeting.
"I don't know if they targeted sailors, but they did meet them, befriended them, and a verbal contract was formed," said Deputy Chief Jim Cervera of the Virginia Beach Police Department.
According to the indictment, the sailors are accused of receiving thousands of dollars in housing allowances to which they were not entitled. The women, most of whom are from Russia or Ukraine and had arrived on work or student visas, got a fast track to citizenship.
Some of them received military identification cards from the Defense Department, exposing a security vulnerability, Worth said. "In these cases, we don't know where they come from or what their intentions are."
Five of the accused sailors served on the USS Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship. Two others served on the USS Wasp, also an amphibious assault ship. Those on active duty were taken from the ships to face charges in Virginia, which added another cost.
"There's an impact to mission readiness," Worth said. "Those sailors have to be replaced, and the replacements have to be trained."
Several attorneys representing the sailors and their brides did not return calls seeking comment.
A Navy spokeswoman said, "Our sailors are expected to act in an ethical and responsible manner."
She added, "Sailors who commit these crimes represent a very small percentage of sailors in the U.S. Navy."
Officials said they believe that similar schemes may be taking place at other naval bases. E-mail to a friend