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Trick-or-Treating for Your Money

Servicemember stressed about finances.

When it comes to tricking you out of your money, for scammers it's Halloween all year long.

In 2011, an estimated 25.6 million adults (10.8 percent of the U.S. adult population) were victims of fraud. Consumer scams can take many different forms, from direct marketing to affinity scams and involve everything from identity theft to pension poaching. However, there are a few general tell-tale signs that you can look for if you're trying to decide if a financial product or service you're being offered is a scammer's trick or a financial treat.

Phantom Riches

There are a lot of bogus offers out there that guarantee huge investment returns, windfalls of money, or a fast track to important benefits for only a "small" fee or investment on your part. It could be the offer of a loan at a great rate of interest – as long as you send in a "security deposit" first. Once you do, "poof!" your money disappears along with the scammer who made you the offer.

Or, maybe it's an offer to help you get thousands of dollars in benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs– for a fee. If you're a veteran interested in getting benefits like Aid and Attendance, you should be wary of any paid advisor who offers to help you qualify for the benefit or who claims to be able to get you the benefit more quickly than anyone else.

Superheroes

Scammers would like you to believe they have superpowers, often claiming inflated credentials and experience in order to access your money.

Distressed homeowners may fall prey to mortgage relief companies that offer to help them with their mortgage or foreclosure problems for an up-front fee. These self-styled heroes will tout their credentials and promise to help solve your problems, but often leave you worse off than you were before. And it's illegal for them to charge you an advance fee for help, so report them by submitting a complaint online or by calling (855) 411-2372.

Make sure you thoroughly research anybody who offers to help you with a consumer financial problem! Even the fact that they may have been in the military themselves isn't a guarantee that they are going to treat you right.

Zombie debt

Zombies can come back from the dead and so can your debts. You may have a debt from years ago and suddenly a debt collector is contacting you demanding that you pay it back – now. Financial institutions sometimes sell old debt to other businesses, which then try to collect on it. If the financial records aren't accurate, you may even find you're being asked to pay back a debt you already paid off – or one that wasn't even your debt in the first place.

Personal Financial Managers and JAGs can help servicemembers review any demand for debt repayment that you don't fully understand. We've also prepared sample letters that you can use to respond to a debt collector. The letters may help you learn more about the age and other features of the debt and help you protect some of your rights.

Vampires

Vampires prey on the unsuspecting. Fraudsters do the same – using the promise of a special deal or a one-time offer to lure unsuspecting consumers into deals they don't realize are financial booby traps. Never be pushed into buying something or entering into a financial contract because the product is going fast or the amazing deal is a limited-time offer. Take the time to do your research and get all your questions answered. Ask CFPB is a good place to get some of those answers.

And always remember: unlike the hapless victim in a vampire movie, you have the ability to escape. You can walk away from the table, hang up the phone, or log off the website.

You don't need garlic, stakes, or torches to fight off the scary forces of consumer fraud – just a little knowledge about the tricks scammers use.

Happy Halloween!

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Personal Finances

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Contributor

Holly Petraeus is the assistant director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's Office of Servicemember Affairs, a government office dedicated to protecting service members and their families from financial predators and pitfalls. The office is charged with ensuring that those who serve in the military are able to focus on their jobs and their families without having to worry about getting trapped by abusive financial practices.

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