An ad in a newsletter for free in-home care for veterans. A phone call to donate money for disabled veterans.
These are among the scam stories senators heard at a Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing Wednesday. They listened to one case from someone who fell victim to donating to a fake charity and hearing other cases from a volunteer, a district attorney and an inspector within the United States Postal Inspection Service.
"Americans, veterans are now facing a newer enemy and that is relentless criminals," said chairwoman Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "And I'm not going to call them scammers. Let's call them what they are. They are criminals who are seeking to steal the life savings from our veterans, those who have done their part and served our country, and to profit from their personal information as well."
While they are not alone in falling victim to scams, veterans have lost money to scammers at double the rate of the non-military public, AARP found in 2017. It also found 78 percent of retired military men and women have been targeted by scams tailored to exploit their service history.
LaVerne Foreman, 82, was fortunate that he realized it was a scam before the fake organization, "Disabled and Paralyzed Veterans Fund," stole more than $95. He said he, a frequent donor to veterans charities, became suspicious the second time the pledge letter it sent him was for more than he had agreed to give.
"It never occurred to me that someone could be so cold-hearted to make calls and claim to be caring for veterans, when in reality they were lining their own pockets," the former civil and military service man from Herndon, Pennsylvania told the senators.
A year after Foreman told the organization to remove him from its contact list, his credit union account monthly statement showed a check way outside his check number sequence in the amount of his last donation. He said he later realized that while the name paralleled legitimate organizations' names, like the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Disabled American Veterans, it was not a real organization.
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Foreman said he referred the matter to Pennsylvania Attorney General's office, and he expects there will be some action to hold the scammers accountable. He calls himself one of the lucky ones.
"My loss may seem small, but I am certain that these scammers have targeted thousands, if not millions, more people," Foreman testified. "The total sum of their bounty probably far exceeds anything that I could ever earn in a lifetime. And that is wrong."
Meanwhile, Vet2Vet Maine volunteer Ben Wells was able to recognize and prevent the veteran he was helping from falling victim to a scam advertised in a newsletter.
Wells said the Korean War veteran was in declining physical health, needed a walker and had chronic pain. So the promotion for free in-home care for veterans was appealing since it would relieve some of the pressure on his wife.
"It was a sad thing to see," said Wells, an Air Force veteran who served during Operation Enduring Freedom. "He was very excited about this opportunity, and I had to sort of swoop the rug out from under them."
Wells said he first realized it was a scam when the organization staff told the couple in their 80s to set up a separate checking account for his VA pension and the Aid and Attendance benefit. From there, the organization would simply deduct its fees directly from the account.
"The idea that anyone could keep themselves completely safe from a scam is a broken proposition," Wells said in his testimony. "No consumer is going to be able to stay ahead of scammers."
Senators agreed with Wells' sentiment, and asked Dewayne Richardson, a Mississippi DA who prosecuted a woman who stole millions from seniors and veterans, and Carroll Harris, a U.S. Postal Inspection Service inspector for more details on the problem and how to address it.
Harris said encouraging people to talk to others like what Wells' did would help anyone avoid scams. The other way to address the issue is education.
"But not everyone has someone to confide in. Maybe you can help others," he said, urging the public to share AARP-Post Office veteran fraud brochures going up in offices and out to members.
Meanwhile, Richardson said law enforcement from different states working together would help speed up the identification and prosecution of scammers. To make sure the thefts are prosecuted to the full extent, he said he needs to have more victims of scams come forward.
Unfortunately, even after going to law enforcement and prosecuting the scammers, fraud victims will never recoup their losses.
"As a veteran myself, there is a special place in hell for these people who are scamming our heroes," said Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona. "This is infuriating."
McSally showed the committee one of the bogus letters she gets a week that looks official that says her "VA loan waiting period has expired." It erroneously called her "Sally Martha Mc."
"Imagine veterans who call this number and then end up refinancing their home loan that they don't need to be doing for some interest rate and closing cost that's robbing them of their hard-earned resources," McSally said, holding up the letter. "So this stuff needs to stop."
Senators said after the hearing they will send a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie urging him to have the Department of Veterans Affairs do more to protect veterans from financial and identity theft.
Ranking Member Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., chastised the VA for its response to a Government Accountability Office report saying it would direct its beneficiaries making a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission.
"We had no choice but to send it," Casey said. "The reason why virtually every member has signed our letter to the VA is that we all concluded, 'Not good enough, VA.'"
Meanwhile, Foreman said to protect against scams, he now uses caller ID on his home phone and only picks up if he recognizes the number. He advises other veterans and charitable donors to always request a pledge letter so they can double-check the organization's legitimacy.
"It isn't easy to talk about being scammed, but what I'm doing today is an extension of my service," Foreman told the committee. "I feel a sense of responsibility to warn others who served to be vigilant against scam artists."
— Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at email@example.com.