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Troops Often Victims of Scams

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Preying on the young and inexperienced, unscrupulous bank lenders and scam artists have targeted military men and women.

That's why federal and state officials are working together to prevent military personnel from falling victim.

During a press conference and town hall meeting Friday at Travis Air Force Base, Holly Petraeus, assistant director of Consumer Financial Bureau Office of Servicemember Affairs, and California Attorney General Kamala Harris met with some 250 airmen to discuss the struggles they face and the programs available to them.

"Our military families were not immune to the housing crisis or predatory lending practices," she said, adding that the military has already sacrificed so much that taking advantage of them is "particularly outrageous."

She explained that California has the largest number of active-duty and reserve military in the county and they can be very trusting.

"They're here to protect the American dream and therefore believe in it," she said.

Staff Sgt. Daniel Villegas said he knows firsthand about being financially inexperienced coming into the military and being hit by the housing market crash.

He was 19 when he joined the military already saddled with a lot of debt. The Family Readiness Center, however, put him on the right track to not only get out of debt, but to start saving money.

He saved enough to buy a home as an investment in Olivehurst near Beale Air Force Base. However, that all came crashing down when the house he bought at $350,000 sold for only $133,000.

"It was really hard, I could barely keep my head above water," he said, adding that before he sold the house, the monthly payments jumped from $1,400 to $2,100 because of an adjustable interest rate. "I took a shot at investing and it didn't work out."

Now 29, Villegas said life has been up and down during the 10 years he's been in the military, but life is at a high point since he went back to the Family Readiness Center for help.

He said he hopes other airmen seek their guidance before trying to do things on their own.

Personal Finance Readiness Manager Thomas Day explained that there are ways for military personnel to get out of debt. He added that there are workshops held on a regular basis that discuss getting out of debt and the best way to buy homes.

He said some scams, such as cash advances, continuously take advantage of the airmen by repeatedly loaning them money.

"Once they get on that treadmill, it's hard to get off," he said.

One way Harris would like to protect the military is to require banks to notify service members of their rights under the Servicemember Civil Relief Act before filing for foreclosure.

Under the act, service members are eligible for various mortgage-related protections, including a fixed interest rate and possible deferment of payments.

Petraeus explained that young men and women willingly join the military without a lot of experience and move frequently.

"They're walking into a new community with a guaranteed paycheck," she said, adding that lenders take advantage their vulnerability while others try selling very expensive merchandise right outside the military bases.

On top of that, those who do buy homes don't have the option of hunkering down and waiting out the housing market when they've been given orders to move.

Having bad credit has lasting consequences. For the military, the consequences can be far-reaching.

"It could impact their security clearance with bad credit," Petraeus said. "They have a unique set of circumstances."

The Office of Servicemember Affairs is a relatively new agency, she said, and one that enforces financial laws of the Consumer Financial Bureau such as truth in lending, fair debt practices and credit cards.

Petraeus explained that her job is to make sure the airmen have the financial education they need to make better consumer decisions, monitor complaints and coordinate with the federal and state officials to ensure there are measures in place to protect them.

More information is available online at www.consumerfinance.org.

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