Scambuster Fighting for Military Members
By Alan Greenblatt
People have different reactions when they see service men and women in uniform. Many admire their bravery and thank them for the sacrifices they’ve made. But some individuals think of them quite differently, as easy marks.
Members of the military are targeted at a high rate for scams perpetrated by landlords or companies selling loans or consumer goods such as faulty cars or computers. There have always been a few shady businesses around the edges of military bases, but now companies run sophisticated campaigns targeting active members of the military on a nationwide basis. According to the Federal Trade Commission, 100,000 cases of fraud were reported by service men and women, their dependents, retirees, or veterans in 2016 alone.
Deanna Nelson is trying to do something about it. Nelson is an assistant attorney general in New York, running the Watertown office. She knew nothing about military consumer practices before taking on the job ten years ago, but she quickly got up to speed due to the number of fraud cases coming out of the Army’s neighboring Fort Drum. “Companies in the area and nationally have made it their business to separate the military from their income streams,” Nelson says.
People in the Army and the other service branches make unusually attractive targets for grifters for several reasons. They typically are young, often living away from home and managing their own finances for the first time. They collect steady paychecks and pay their bills on time, because keeping their credit records clean is a condition of their employment. If they are in any kind of financial trouble, they can lose their security clearances for fear they’d be subject to blackmail or other pressures. So service members pay their bills no matter how blatantly they’ve been ripped off. “The companies realize that service members are going to pay,” Nelson says. “It’s not worth it to sacrifice their security clearance or military status not to pay.”
When particular types of scams become common, Nelson and her counterparts in other states are often called in by financial counselors on the bases. As civilians and representatives of the state, there are limits to what they can do. They aren’t going to represent individual men or women, but they can act as mediators.
Nelson and her peers can also file lawsuits against the perpetrators. Due to the national nature of the crimes, state AGs around the country often call on each other for assistance in doing that. Collectively, they’ve recovered something in the neighborhood of $100 million in restitution and debt forgiveness in recent years. “Frankly, it’s a real issue of military readiness,” says Bob Cooper, a former attorney general of Tennessee who won a $2.2 million settlement against a retailer and financier who violated consumer protection law. “We have military men and women who should be focused on their mission, who were being distracted by these fraudulent sales that were creating unnecessary anxiety for them.”
Thanks to Nelson’s work with federal agencies, there’s now a regularly refreshed database of current scams going around that AGs can explore. Locally, she offers quarterly updates to personnel at Fort Drum about the newest scams they need to be on the watch for. She never expected to end up working on consumer fraud cases involving the military, but she’s demonstrated “unreal tenacity,” says Tim Crytser, a case manager for the Central New York Veterans Outreach Center in Watertown. “She’s small and slight and you wouldn’t think there’s a mean bone in her body. But this woman’s serious. I’ve never seen such a switch from being that nice to being that fierce.”
Alan Greenblatt is a staff writer for Governing. He covers politics as well as policy issues. He is the coauthor of a standard textbook on state and local governments. He previously worked as a reporter for National Public Radio and Congressional Quarterly and has written about politics and culture for many other outlets, print and online.
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