The Servicemember’s Guide to Military Scams
by: Troops to Trades
May 25, 2016
By Brandon Robinson
How Veterans, Active Duty Members and Military Families Can Avoid Fraud
Members of the American military may willingly put themselves in the line of fire in a war zone, but few likely realize they are in the crosshairs of scammers back home. Their steady salaries, along with other support military members get from government agencies, non-profits, and civilians, attract con artists who target service members, their families, and veterans with fraudulent schemes. This guide provides an overview of common scams and dishonest lending aimed at service members and veterans.
Why Are Members of the Military Targets?
Active duty servicemembers, their families and veterans are targeted by fraudsters because they receive regular paychecks and benefits. They are also loyal to each other and are often quick to help out a fellow service member in need, which can make them vulnerable to scams in which someone pretends to be a fellow vet. Knowing that servicemembers are subject to sudden deployments and relocations, swindlers take advantage of military families trying to sell their household goods quickly. The online availability of military records can also make it easy for crooks to gain access to the personal history of veterans and their military records.
12 Scams that Target Veterans and Servicemembers
Below is an overview of some of the most common fraud aimed at military personnel and veterans, the North Carolina Department of Justice, Military.com, and the AARP. Learn how they work, who’s most vulnerable, and what to watch out for to protect yourself.
Military Records Scam
Grifters will entice veterans to pay for access to military records or government forms with the promise of discounts, even though veterans can obtain these records for free. You can access your military records for free by going online.
Red Flag: Anyone offering discounts to access military records or seeking payment to do so.
VA Imposter Scam
Beware of phone calls and emails from someone claiming to be from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs seeking to update your personal information. These so-called “phishing” scams are a prelude to identity theft. If you get a request, hang up and call the agency back to make sure the request is legitimate before sharing information. You can verify the request by contacting the VA through the phone numbers listed on the web.
If you are providing information to the VA over a website, be sure you enter the address yourself rather than clicking through to it from an email. Check for the locked symbol on your browser by the URL to ensure you are on a secured website before entering information. Also, be careful about downloading files and opening attachments sent in emails. These can launch spyware that gathers personal information and passwords from your computer.
Red Flag: Unsolicited calls asking for personal information. The VA will never call, email, or text veterans seeking personal information. Unless you initiate the contact, do not provide personal and financial information.
Employer Imposter Scam
Another way scam artists try to get the personal information of veterans is by pretending to be an employer seeking to hire vets. These fraudsters will post job listings on online websites, and even advertise them in newspapers, or on television or radio. The goal is to steal personal and financial information from vets, such as social security numbers and other identifiers. Before giving out any personal information, verify the organization is legitimate: Contact the employer directly to verify they are hiring.
Red Flag: Companies that you cannot independently verify are hiring.
Education Grant Scams
Education grant scams take a variety of forms. They include “services” that provide a bogus grant check with instructions to wire money to cover a processing fee when you deposit the check. Other chiselers will market a free financial aid seminar that offers to submit applications for grants and financial aid in exchange for a fee that could be up to $1,000. In these scams, the fraudsters take the money, but never apply for grants. If someone calls offering you an educational grant, be cautious. Do not provide personal information over the phone. You can also check the GovLoans website for potential funding available for veterans to use to pay for education.
Red Flag: Someone claiming to be a government agency offering you a grant you did not apply to get. Also avoid companies that say they can guarantee grant money and will handle all the research and applications for you, or tell you they have information that’s not available elsewhere.
Pension and Benefits Scams
A common pension and benefits scam involves untrustworthy financial advisors, attorneys, insurance agents and others who target veterans over 65. The swindler convinces them to take their pensions and to transfer funds to a trust or annuity that they say will get them a better return and qualify for something called Enhanced Pension with Aid and Attendance benefits. The scammer uses scare tactics to convince the veteran he won’t have enough money to meet his needs and moves the vet’s money to accounts that generate substantial fees for the scammer.
The Obama Administration’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force warns that “unscrupulous brokers claim to help veterans qualify for Aid and Attendance benefits, but in fact may cause them to lose eligibility for Medicaid services or cut off victims from their money for a long time.” If you are dealing with an attorney or insurance agent, check with your state bar or state Department of Insurance to see if that person is licensed within your state. If you are dealing with a financial planner, check to make sure he or she is certified and isn’t subject to disciplinary actions. Take your time and do your homework before making a decision.
Red Flag: Being pressured to make a decision, asked to pay fees upfront, or provided with vague answers to your questions or guarantees of Aid and Attendance benefits. Walk away if any of these things happen to you.
Unscrupulous lenders sometimes target veterans in need of money with pension advances. These provide a means of turning future pension benefits into cash today. This can take the form of a loan, sale or buyout. In exchange for a lump sum payment up front, the veteran agrees to sign over future pension payments. While this may make sense under certain circumstances, there are risks and consequences that should be weighed carefully. This can include large fees, the possible inability to pay off the loan early and potential increases to interest rates. There can also be unexpected tax consequences if the upfront payment pushes you into a higher tax bracket. You may also be required to carry life insurance during the term of an agreement, an added cost. Scammers seeking to take advantage of vulnerable vets offer buyouts of only 30 to 40 percent of the value of the pension. Before even considering such an option, talk to conventional lenders who can offer better rates on short-term loans.
Red Flag: A deal in which you get only a fraction of what your pension is worth. If it doesn’t make sense, don’t take the deal.
Bogus charities seeking to prey on veterans and their supporters will take names similar to legitimate ones and make reference to “military families,” the “armed forces” or “veterans” in their appeals. Though there are legitimate charities supporting veterans, there are scam artists out there who are lining only their pockets. Also found in abundance are charities that rely on paid fundraisers who take a a much higher percentage of donations in commissions than do regular charities. Before donating, check the charity out on www.charitywatch.org or www.give.org. Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions to fundraisers about who they work for, what they get paid, and the track record of the organization.
Red Flag: Organizations with names similar to well-known charities, groups with little known history or track record, organizations that pay high commissions to fundraisers, and an inability to get direct answers to your questions about the organization.
Rental Property Scams
Real estate scams target military personnel looking for housing near a base. These fraudsters pose as real estate agents and post fake ads for rental properties on websites with the promise of military discounts and other incentives. These may include pictures of real homes as an inducement to get military personnel to wire money to secure the property and pay fees and deposits upfront for a property that doesn’t actually exist.
Red Flag: Insisting on wiring money or other payment before the renter can see the property and verify it is real.
DFAS/MyPay Phishing Scam
These identity theft scams seek to obtain the social security numbers, bank accounts, and other sensitive personal information from veterans and military spouses.. The scammer will pose asa member of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service or another military entity and contact the veteran through phone, email or text. In some cases, he will claim that due to computer problems your information was lost and needs to be reentered to process payments. In other instances, emails will contain links or attachments that can put rogue programs on your computer to steal passwords and account information.
Red Flag: Unsolicited calls from DFAS seeking private information. DFAS and other military organizations never contact veterans with a request for personal financial information, account numbers, or passwords.
Long Distance Romance Scam
These scams target women who are sympathetic to people in the military through online dating and social media websites. The scammer will pose as someone in the military and post fake photos, create a bogus identity, and build an online relationship with his victims. Eventually, he will seek to get the woman to send him money, claiming he needs it to pay medical bills, tuition costs, or other expenses. Use online tools to verify the person is real.
Red Flag: Anyone you have never met asking you to send money.
Debt Collection Imposter Scam
Scammers posing as debt collectors will contact military personnel and seek to collect on a non-existent debt. These grifters are aggressive and may threaten you with arrest or contacting your superior officers. If you get such a call, hang up. If they persist, contact the Federal Trade Commission. If you have reason to believe the debt could be legitimate, ask the debt collector to provide written verification, which is required by law. Do not send money without proof that the debt is real.
Red Flag: Aggressive, threatening behavior or asking for written verification that the debt collector refuses to give out.
Credit Monitoring Scam
These scams target active duty military personnel who are being deployed. The scammer will call up and offer to monitor your credit, supposedly to protect you against identity thieves during your deployment. In reality, they use your credit information to make charges in your name.