Veterans who have been waiting more than a decade for dedicated burn pit compensation and health care might have one more thing to worry about as they wait for last week's historic toxic exposure legislation to take effect.
President Joe Biden signed the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act into law last week. Just days later, as veterans are submitting their claims to the Department of Veterans Affairs and Congress is working out funding, one nonprofit is cautioning former service members to be wary of unsolicited contact from people looking to cash in on the moment.
"While veterans wait for their benefits, scammers reach out with empty promises claiming they can help veterans get their compensation more quickly for a small fee," the Cybercrime Support Network, or CSN, a nonprofit that researches and provides resources to those susceptible to cybercrime, said in a press release Wednesday. "They may also reach out posing as a representative of the VA to steal sensitive information -- such as Social Security numbers or account login information."
The organization is worried that as "the VA is experiencing an influx of disability claims from these newly eligible Veterans" following the passage of the PACT Act, scammers are going to see a golden opportunity to strike.
Service members, veterans and their families are often targets for scammers due to their potential eligibility for benefits, including home loans or GI Bill benefits, according to Ally Armeson, the director for the military and veteran program at CSN.
"Successful scammers are typically well-versed in military life and know about benefits exclusive to the veteran community," Armeson told Military.com over email. "Scammers also take advantage of the fact that veteran care and benefits take time to process, which opens the door for scammers to make false promises about expediting care and allows them to steal millions of dollars from our veterans every year."
The concern comes as military veterans and retirees are reporting a staggering increase in scams to the government. In February, the Federal Trade Commission, a government agency tasked with consumer protection, reported that more than 160,000 veterans and retirees reported fraud, identity theft or other scams in 2021 -- a 41% increase from the year prior.
The FTC estimates that veterans reported $177 million in total fraud loss in 2021 -- well over half the dollar amount reported in 2020 for all Americans. Other scams, in general, may not come in the form of a shady phone call or spam email. Last month, a major jewelry retailer -- Harris Jewelry -- was ordered to pay more than $30 million in fines and refunds to consumers after allegedly duping troops and their families into nebulous credit agreements.
"It would be difficult to pinpoint exactly why there was such an increase in reports," Armeson told Military.com. "Generally, scams go unreported because victims either don't realize they have been scammed, don't think what has happened is a crime, or don't know where to report.
"Our hope is that through increased education, we can make more Veterans aware of ways to protect themselves from scams," she added.
The Cybercrime Support Network identifies a number of red flags that scammers may use to dupe veterans into bilking them for money:
- Demanding an upfront fee in order to receive benefits.
- Requesting information to update records in order to be eligible for benefits.
- Requesting personal information to verify a service member's identity.
- Requiring payment to receive access to records.
- Using language suggesting a need to act quickly.
CSN also recommends three rules for veterans to use if they suspect they are being targeted by a scam: slow it down, spot check, don't send.
Additionally, while the VA is encouraging veterans to apply for claims now, it does not expect to process PACT Act benefits until 2023, after Congress approves funding for the law.
"The VA is the only organization that processes PACT Act-related benefits, and you must submit a claim on their official website," Armeson told Military.com. "No one else is able to process claims or get you your benefits sooner."
CSN also recommends researching or "spot checking" the organization or entity that is contacting a veteran. "Before providing sensitive information or payment, perform an internet search of the organization who contacted you, followed by the words ''scam' or 'complaint,'" the group said in Wednesday's press release.
Armeson also recommended that veterans look for typos in email messages and to be wary of "look-alike" URLs where a website link may look like an official site, but have one or two letters off that may be missed on first glance.
CSN advises against sending any unsolicited payment to an unverified source. "As a veteran, you never have to pay an upfront fee to receive your benefits or access your documents," the nonprofit wrote. "If someone is asking you to pay for these, it's a scam."
This is a link to the official Veterans Affairs website that outlines what the PACT Act does and how veterans can file a claim.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.