Veterans get a spotlight each November on Veterans Day. But those who’ve served also draw unwanted attention from scammers and schemers who target vets and active-duty service members.

More than 100,000 service members, dependents, military retirees and veterans filed complaints in 2016 with the Federal Trade Commission complaining about scams. Besides fake-charity scams, they’re targeted by fraudsters in a range of schemes that exploit their military service.

“Our veterans deserve respect, praise, honor and security,” says Julie Kenney, spokeswoman for U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which enforces laws for the nation’s mail system. “They do not deserve to be scammed out of their money, their homes or out of the benefits that they earned.”

Scammers use the mail to try to trick veterans into disclosing personal information or sending money. In one type of ruse, imposters pose as officials with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs and contact veterans about VA benefits or money due to them.

To receive the supposed benefit or refund, veterans are instructed to pay a “handling fee” for the check or pay taxes on the benefit.

That pitch alone is a tipoff, experts say.

“No government agency is ever going to call you and actually offer that sort of a thing, and they’re never going to pressure you to pay for that kind of a benefit,” says Carol Kando-Pineda, counsel for the FTC’s Division of Consumer and Business Education. “That’s a red flag that people would be able to tell that they’re not really getting a call from the VA. They’re getting a call from some sort of government imposter.”

There are several criminal schemes that target veterans, so experts say you should be wary of any unsolicited contact about your military benefits. | AP Photo/David Zalubowski

There are several criminal schemes that target veterans, so experts say you should be wary of any unsolicited offers or questions about your military service or benefits. | AP Photo/David Zalubowski

How to respond to a deal that sounds too good to be true

In another scheme, private loan companies try to gain control of veterans’ pensions by offering buyouts packaged as loans. In exchange for a portion or all of a veteran’s monthly pension check, the lender pays a lump sum.

Such arrangements are usually a bad deal for the vet. Advocates say veterans should consult with a pension administrator before signing up for a buyout because the money they receive is often worth far less than the value of the pension.

“People think this might be helpful if they’re a little short on cash. They need a loan. They need to bolster the funds they have coming in,” Kando-Pineda says. “They’re sort of trading on money that they need to live. If they’re living on their pension, they’re sort of giving away their rights to that and getting less back.”

Others prey on veterans by offering to obtain government documents, then tacking on hefty fees. Veterans should directly contact government agencies themselves to request official paperwork like DD-214 discharge papers and claims for federal benefits.

“We have veteran service officers throughout the state of Illinois,” says Dave MacDonna, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs. “If a veteran needs any kind of military documents, we highly recommend they contact a veteran service officer and receive information through them. It’s free of charge.”

Other scams that veterans and their families should be wary of include job offers exclusively for veterans but requiring an upfront fee or charge for training and equipment.

Other scammers pose as debt collectors, calling vets about supposed overpaid pension funds, or as VA officials who need to confirm personal information.

“Safeguarding personally identifiable information is a veteran’s best defense against being the victim of fraud,” says Susan Carter, spokeswoman for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

That includes keeping personal information away from unknown third parties and frequently changing VA eBenefits passwords.

Besides targeting veterans, some scam artists hit up others with phony charity solicitations that play on people’s emotions surrounding military service.

In March, the Justice Department announced charges against four Indiana residents in an elaborate fraud scheme that included creating the “Wounded Warrior Fund” and “Wounded Warrior Foundation” to piggyback off the well-known charitable organization Wounded Warrior Project. Prosecutors said two of those charged posed as military veterans to trick businesses and individuals throughout the Midwest into donating and that they pocketed $125,000.

Before donating, do your research. You might start by going to the websites of these organizations:

More than 100,000 service members, dependents, military retirees and veterans filed complaints in 2016 with the Federal Trade Commission complaining about scams.

More than 100,000 service members, dependents, military retirees and veterans filed complaints in 2016 with the Federal Trade Commission about scams. | AP

How vets can protect themselves from scams

Fraud experts offer these tips for vets to avoid being scammed:

  • Avoid providing personal information via the phone or Internet.
  • If you need service records or have a benefits question, contact your veterans agency directly.
  • Don’t accept a lump sum from a lender in exchange for your pension rights.
  • Report fraud to the Federal Trade Commission by calling (877) FTC-HELP — (877) 382-4357 — toll-free or going online to FTC.gov and the Department of Veterans Affairs at the toll-free number (844) MyVA311 — (844) 698-2311 — or online at VA.gov.

AARP Illinois logoThis consumer alert is the second in the series “Be On Guard” reported by the Chicago Sun-Times and made possible through the support of AARP Illinois. The AARP Fraud Watch Network can help protect you from frauds and scams. Call this free helpline (877) 908-3360 to speak with volunteers trained in fraud counseling.

• PART ONE: How to avoid identify theft and keep your data safe