The chief policy officer with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America called a marketing company's use of phone numbers closely matching Department of Veterans Affairs' national call centers a "disgusting" example of people looking to prey on the country's veterans.
"These people should be in jail," Tom Tarantino said.
Veterans reaching the bogus numbers by accident are "trying to get help or trying to manage their benefits and services. It's frustrating enough to deal with VA's actual call centers, but then to be preyed on by unscrupulous marking firms -- It's disgusting," Tarantino said.
The VA issued warnings through emails and social media late last week that veterans trying to reach the VA's National Call Center or the GI Bill Call Center risked connecting to two fraudulent numbers differing from the legitimate numbers by a single digit.
"If the fraudulent number is dialed by mistake, the answering party will offer a gift card and try to obtain personal and financial information, including credit card information, from the caller," the VA said in its Facebook posting. "The answering party may even transfer the caller to the VA after the caller's information is obtained."
It is also possible a veteran could key in one of the phony numbers deliberately, initially believing it connects to the GI Bill Call Center. Military.com found the bogus number listed as the GI Bill Call Center in two outdated online publications -- "College 411," a student guide to education and financial aid in Maryland, and the California College of Music in Pasadena.
When calling the marketing firm's numbers on Monday, Military.com was directed by a voice recording to press 1 to speak with an operator and be processed for a $100 Walmart gift card. Other gifts were also available "just for taking a look at the nation's leading savings program."
A live operator told Military.com that it would cost $9.97 to receive the Walmart gift card and other coupons.
When informed that the two numbers are near matches for two VA call centers, an operator said some numbers had changed or been disconnected. Military.com asked to speak with a manager and the operator said someone would call back, but no call was returned.
In its warnings, the VA said the marketers will try to obtain veterans' personal and financial information, including credit card information, and may even transfer the caller to the VA after the information is obtained.
VA said its people "will never ask you for a credit card number or banking information over the phone."
Tarantino said the VA moved fast to get out word of the scam.
"To the VA's credit they're trying to push [news of the bogus numbers] out there," he said, noting that he learned of it in four separate messages and alerts. "They got wise to this pretty quickly."
In its warning announcements, the VA said the bogus numbers are 800-872-1000 and 888-442-4511. The actual number for the VA National Call Center is 800-827-1000; for the GI Bill Call Center it is 888-442-4551.
VA numbers may be verified here.