The Department of Veterans Affairs is ramping up efforts to educate veterans on potential scams or fraud that could rob them of disability benefits or cost them, should they fall victim to such crimes.
VA launched a new website last week, www.va.gov/vsafe, that provides information on identifying fraud, reporting scams and vetting service representatives if they need help with claims.
"Anytime there's new benefits or new money being allocated to individuals, there's the potential for fraudsters and scamsters to come in," Elias said during a press conference Friday.
In the past year, VA has investigated 12,474 cases of potential benefits fraud and helped 1,164 victims whose disability payments were directed to fraudulent bank accounts. The department has recouped $847,494 as a result of prevention and recovery, according to Elias.
Among the most prevalent types of malfeasance VA has seen are unaccredited companies providing assistance to veterans to file claims and charging exorbitant fees, which is illegal on initial claims, Elias said.
VA has increased investigations of companies that are charging fees, sending letters informing them of the law and requesting that they stop. However, there are no criminal penalties for such conduct, according to VA officials, and the department has asked Congress to reinstate such penalties, which were in force until 2006.
"They're operating in a gray area, and some of them are charging up to six times whatever a veteran receives in benefits payouts," Elias said.
Earlier this year, Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced a bill that would make fraud over veterans benefits punishable by up to five years in prison, a fine or both.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., reintroduced the legislation this year, the Preventing Crimes Against Veterans Act, in the House, where it had passed in 2021 on a 416-5 vote. It was not taken up in the Senate at the time.
The bills have been referred to their respective judiciary committees.
VA officials stressed that no veterans service officer or organization can charge fees for initial claims, but they can for appeals.
As far as attorneys seeking to represent those harmed by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the Justice Department and the Navy earlier this month placed a cap on fees for those interested in settling claims without going to court at 20% and those seeking to file a lawsuit at 25%.
The departments announced the caps under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
As part of the effort to educate veterans on potential scams -- the so-called VSAFE program, which stands for Veterans Scam and Fraud Evasion -- VA Secretary Denis McDonough has addressed fraud and "claim sharks," who illegally charge fees for filing, during his appearances at veterans service organization conventions and all large gatherings of veterans, including medical center town halls.
VA also has included fraud education information into materials provided to veterans on health care and benefits, Elias said.
"We are going to oversaturate veterans with fraud and scam information, so they know how to recognize it and what to do when it comes to them," she said.
For Elias, an Army veteran and military wife, the fraud prevention initiative is personal. Her family was a victim of fraud when a scammer identified himself as a VA employee who could assist with paying off their home loan and robbed them of thousands of dollars in home equity.
"One of the things this website does that is really important is, it talks in plain language to veterans and their families about what the frauds and scams might look like and where and how to go for resources," Elias said.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com