Monday, 20 May 2024

Attorney general issues consumer alert to protect military community from common scams and fraud

In recognition of Military Consumer Month — which is observed every July — State Attorney General Rob Bonta on Thursday issued a consumer alert to help protect California service members, veterans, and their family members from targeted common scams and fraud.

California is home to the largest population of active duty service members and reservists, and veterans in the nation.

Scammers often target the military community: according to the Federal Trade Commission, military consumers nationwide reported over 93,000 fraud complaints last year, including 39,909 imposter scams that reportedly cost them and their families over $164 million.

“California service members and their families should never have to worry about becoming targets for predatory scammers,” said Attorney General Bonta. “Throughout Military Consumer Month, and all year round, I urge California’s military community to learn the warning signs and take the necessary precautions to protect themselves. If you have fallen victim to a scam or suspect fraudulent activity, please report it to your local authorities or to the California Department of Justice at oag.ca.gov/report. As part of our commitment to protect those who protect us, my office will continue to bring the full force of the law against those who seek to exploit the goodwill of California’s military community.”

Why is the military community targeted?

Military service members, veterans, and their families are frequently targeted for access to their military government benefits. In addition, the camaraderie that unites the military community is often exploited by impostors who claim to be veterans in attempts to access personal information for fraudulent purposes.

Common Scams targeting the military community:

Scammers use a variety of tactics to gain trust. Protect yourself by staying up to date on common military- and veteran-targeted scams. Beware of the following:

Charity scams: Just because a charity includes the word “veteran” in its name doesn’t mean that veterans are members of the group, or that veterans or their families will benefit from a donation. Scammers will use names that sound legitimate or those that mimic the names of well-known charities to create confusion. Take the time to make an informed decision and be wary of aggressive solicitations. Go to oag.ca.gov/charities, under the Resources & Tools section, and click on Registry Verification Search. If a charity is not listed, it should not be soliciting funds in California. If it is listed, you can view its financial reports, including the IRS Form 990 that the charity is required to file with DOJ's Registry of Charitable Trusts.

Predatory schools: The GI Bill and other military education programs offer you the chance to attend school and plan for your future, but for-profit schools sometimes target service members and veterans with false promises. Slow down and take the time you need to make the right decision. Predatory schools often use high-pressure sales tactics to try to get you to sign up. It’s important to ask for information about the programs, such as graduation rates, job placement, and graduate salary information. Offers that seem too good to be true generally are. Further, don't forget that educational opportunities at the California Community Colleges, California State University, and University of California may be available to you.

Home loan scams: Be aware of scammers that — through phone calls or fraudulent mailers — claim to be affiliated with the government, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or your home loan servicer. These fraudsters may attempt to convince you to agree to loan modifications, refinance your home, or make payments on your loans. Be cautious of any individual or lender that contacts you and asks you to pay fees upfront before receiving any services; tells you to cancel your mortgage payment and resend the funds elsewhere; tells you to make payments to someone other than your current loan servicer; or pressures you to sign papers you haven’t had a chance to read thoroughly or that you don’t understand — including asking you to sign over the title to your property.

Identity theft and fraud: Some scammers will pretend to be from the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, or other official organizations in order to get your personal information so that they can commit identity theft or fraud. Before you provide any information, always make sure a request is coming from an official organization by doing a quick search on the internet or consulting a trusted source to get the organization’s real contact information. Never trust the contact information given by the person that is asking for your personal information, as scammers often give out fake contact information. Be wary of letters and emails that have misspellings, look unprofessional, or send you to a non-government website for information or action, as these are almost always fake. Lastly, never give out your Social Security number to receive military or veteran discounts. Scammers often promise military or veteran discounts in order to obtain personal information.

Job scams: Service members looking for new career opportunities after leaving service are a target for scammers posting fictitious job listings with the goal of stealing their personal information and finances. Avoid becoming a victim of job scams by conducting thorough research on the company. Additionally, stick to well-known job search platforms and government career websites when looking for job opportunities. Remember, legitimate employers will never require you to pay fees for applications, interviews, or background checks. You should also look out for fake check scams, which occur when a scammer posing as an employer sends you a counterfeit check to deposit into your account. The scammer will then ask you to send a portion of the funds back to them or a third party, while letting you keep some as payment. Eventually, the bank reverses the fake check, leaving you stuck paying the money back to the bank. If something feels off or suspicious during the job search, trust your instincts and end communication immediately.

Pension scams: Veterans ages 65 and over are targeted by scam financial advisers who try to persuade senior veterans to buy costly annuities or transfer their assets into trusts, or pay unnecessary and illegal fees for help with a veterans pension application. These "advisers" claim to help veterans qualify for Aid and Attendance or other veterans benefits, but may cause you to lose eligibility or access to pension, disability, or healthcare benefits. If you are interested in Aid and Attendance or other veterans benefits, you can get free help from your County Veterans Service Office here.

Affinity fraud: Affinity scams target members of identifiable groups, including the military. The perpetrators are — or pretend to be — members of the targeted group, and use sales pitches that rely on group trust and loyalty. In the military community, this includes exploiting the trust that service members have for their fellow service members, and for veterans who previously served. Don't make a significant purchase, or an investment decision, based on the salesperson's supposed military service, or the claim that a business is military-friendly or endorsed by the Armed Forces. Take a tactical pause, and shop around for the best deal.

Debt collection and illegal threats: Debt collectors may try to trick or scare service members into making payments on debts. It is illegal for debt collectors to do any of the following: revoke your security clearance; contact your command in order to collect a debt (unless they have your consent, given after the debt came due, to do so); discipline or demote you; or garnish your pay. If a debt collector is trying to collect a debt that you do not owe or have already paid, dispute the debt in writing. Tell the debt collector why you do not owe the debt, include copies of any evidence you have, and mail this dispute to the debt collector using registered mail so that you have proof that the collector received it — and make sure to keep copies of everything for yourself. If you dispute the debt within 30 days after the collector first contacted you, the collector must stop collection until it shows you written proof of the debt.

Rental housing scams: These scams target military personnel looking for housing near a base, especially prevalent during the Permanent Change of Station season. Scammers pretend to be real estate agents and post fake ads for rental properties on websites, sometimes promising military discounts and other incentives in order to get service members to send them money for fees and deposits upfront. If someone insists on receiving money or other payments before a property has been seen, it is likely a rental scam. Avoid wiring money to reserve apartments, and use your installation housing office or established property management companies to locate potential housing.

Predatory auto sales and financing: Car dealers located near military bases may try to lure service members with promises of special deals for military personnel. Often, these so-called deals conceal the terms of purchase for the vehicle and result in the service member drastically overpaying for both the vehicle and the cost of financing. For example, dealers may insist that military personnel will not qualify for financing unless they purchase overpriced and unnecessary add-ons. Other times, the dealer may tell a service member who just purchased a car that the initial financing fell through and insist on renegotiating for worse terms. You should not rely on oral promises, nor feel pressured to enter into any purchase, without first reading and understanding the contract. If you are looking to purchase a car, you should explore all of your options for financing — including by contacting your bank or credit union — before making a purchase.

Protect yourself from scams

Take advantage of free annual credit reports: You are entitled to one free credit report every year from each of the three national credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Your credit history contains information from financial institutions, utilities, landlords, insurers, and others. By checking your credit reports at least once a year, you can identify signs of identity theft, as well errors in your report that could be raising the cost of your credit. Order your free annual credit reports by phone, toll-free, at 1-877-322-8228, or online at www.annualcreditreport.com.

Place a fraud alert: If your identity is stolen, put a fraud alert on your credit report by contacting the three main credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Also, consider requesting a credit freeze, which will restrict access to your credit file, making it difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. Report identity theft right away and get a recovery plan at identitytheft.gov. Additionally, file a police report with your local sheriff or police department and keep a copy for your records.

Report suspicious activity: Never give out personal information to a lender or servicer that contacts you out of the blue. If you are feeling unsure, hang up and call your loan servicer directly at the number that is listed on your mortgage statement. Report suspicious activity to the Office of the Attorney General at oag.ca.gov/report and file a complaint with the FTC at reportfraud.ftc.gov.

Protect your online information and accounts with strong passwords: Protect yourself by using different, unique passwords for each of your online accounts. Make sure that the passwords you use are at least eight characters, including a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols.

Check your credit card bills and bank statements often: Look for unauthorized charges, withdrawals, or unexpected bills, and report irregular activity to your bank as soon as you see it. If you notice that a bill didn’t arrive on time, it may mean that someone has changed the contact information on your account in order to hide fraudulent charges. Don't share personal information: Be careful about what personal information you share, such as your address or financial information.

Sign up for the Enhanced Homeowner Notification Program: If you reside in Los Angeles County, you may sign up to receive mailed copies of documents recorded against your home, allowing you to review recorded real estate documents so you are aware of actions taken against your property.

If you believe you have been the victim or target of a scam, immediately contact your local police department or reach out to your base legal office. For the legal office’s contact information, ask your command or visit to legalassistance.law.af.mil/. California National Guard personnel can also obtain legal help at www.calguard.ca.gov. You may also file a complaint with the Office of the Attorney General at oag.ca.gov/report. For additional information on military-targeted scams, visit our website at oag.ca.gov/consumers/general/military.

Attorney General Bonta is committed to protecting service members, veterans, and their families. Here are some recent actions taken to protect California’s military community:

In April 2023, Attorney General Bonta filed a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of U.S. veteran James R. Rudisill in his attempt to access educational benefits to which he is entitled under the GI Bill.

The brief urged the court to review an erroneous lower court decision denying Rudisill’s challenge of a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs ruling limiting his benefits.

In August 2022, Attorney General Bonta announced the arrest of Don Azul in connection with an alleged yearslong scheme to defraud families with relatives who served in the military, as well as the University of California and California State University systems.

In July 2022, Attorney General Bonta announced a more than $15 million settlement with Harris Jewelry for violations of state and federal consumer protection laws. The settlement resolved allegations that the nationwide jewelry retailer targeted military service members with dishonest sales and financing tactics at now-shuttered stores located near military bases across the country.

In March 2022, Attorney General Bonta announced his sponsorship of Senate Bill 1311. Signed into law by Governor Newsom, SB 1311 further strengthens financial and legal protections for active duty service members, veterans, and their families.

In June 2021, Attorney General Bonta and San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced that Paul Flanagan was sentenced to 357 days of house arrest and ordered to pay $500,000 in restitution for defrauding thousands of U.S. Navy sailors in San Diego County through a tax and insurance scheme. Another defendant, Ranjit Kalsi, was previously sentenced and ordered to pay $500,000 in restitution.

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