Combating scams that target veterans
Ben Wells of Portland served our country with distinction in the Air Force, and when he returned home, he continued to serve by volunteering to help his fellow veterans. He did not anticipate that he would once again end up on the frontlines, this time in the fight against scams targeting seniors.
Thanks to Ben’s quick thinking, a Korean War veteran and his wife in their 80s avoided being victimized by two criminals seeking to rob them of their hard-earned savings.
I recently invited Ben to testify at a Senate Aging Committee hearing I chaired to raise awareness about scams targeting veterans. This was the 24th hearing the Aging Committee has held in the past seven years to examine fraudulent schemes aimed at our seniors.
Ben explained how he met the older veteran and his wife as a volunteer for Vet 2 Vet, a Maine-based nonprofit that matches older, often socially isolated veterans with younger soldiers returning from the battlefield. After getting to know the couple over the course of several months, the veteran’s wife asked Ben to attend a meeting she had scheduled after responding to an ad for free in-home care for veterans. Two men arrived at her home and claimed that they could provide in-home and respite care that would be covered by the VA Aid and Attendance benefit. They advised her to set up a separate checking account and suggested ways to circumvent the financial means test. Immediately after the two men left, Ben expressed his concerns to the veteran and his wife and dissuaded them from taking up the offer. He also reported the interaction to Vet 2 Vet.
“There was thankfully no long-term financial impact on the veteran or his family from this scam,” Ben told the Aging Committee. “Although I am glad that they did not expose themselves to fraud, it infuriates me that people would falsely offer hope to vulnerable veterans.”
Among our other witnesses was an 82-year-old veteran from Pennsylvania, who described how he was scammed into donating to a fraudulent charity called the “Disabled and Paralyzed Veterans Foundation” after receiving an unsolicited phone call. The US Postal Inspection Service investigated, and the Department of Justice is planning to prosecute the case.
We also heard testimony from a Mississippi District Attorney about his efforts to locate and prosecute a woman who scammed 78 veterans out of more than $2 million in assets through a fraudulent investment company called “Veterans’ Pension Planners of America.” For her crimes, she will remain in prison for nearly six years.
Regrettably, these are not isolated examples. In fact, veterans are disproportionately affected by scams. According to a 2017 AARP study, veterans were twice as likely as non-veterans to lose money to a scam. Although veterans make up about 8 percent of the population, one-third of the victims of investment fraud identified by a 2016 AARP study were veterans. In addition, there is troubling evidence that some fraudsters are deliberately structuring their scams in order to target our veterans. Surveys show that more than three-quarters of our veterans report being targeted by a scam that relates to their veteran status.
Con artists also exploit public support for those who have served our country by creating fake charities that supposedly raise money for needy veterans, but instead funnel funds from generous contributors to greedy fraudsters. In one recent case, a criminal operating out of Michigan was convicted of stealing nearly $200,000 from 36 victims who thought they were donating to charities benefitting veterans. Not only did the veterans never see a dime of this money, the fraudster added insult to injury by stealing the victims’ personal information to commit identity theft. Fortunately, through the very good work of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, this criminal is now behind bars.
Other criminals promise to help veterans claim benefits from non-existent government programs, or they charge inappropriate fees for helping veterans apply for the benefits they’ve earned. Often, they exploit the sense of camaraderie that veterans feel for one another to gain their victim’s trust and then swindle them out of their savings.
The hearing also examined efforts to stop veterans scams, including public education and outreach to help veterans and their families identify scams as well as the importance of aggressively prosecuting perpetrators of these scams. I also wrote a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie signed by nearly every member of the Aging Committee urging his Department to take a lead role in alerting veterans to the risk of scams and what can be done to prevent them.
Veterans and their families have a right to expect that the nation they protected will fight to protect them from scammers.