While the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and its partners work year-round to crack down on scams targeting military members, their families, and members of the general public that support the military, they can’t catch every possible scam.
I took a look at some of the FTC’s resources to learn more about how scams affect the U.S. military community specifically.
Why Are Military Families Especially Vulnerable to Scams?
Scamming is a big business. Recently, Americans lost over $3.3 billion to scammers according to the FTC. In case you need to stop and count all the zeros, that’s a lot of money.
Anyone can be targeted by scammers, but the FTC notes that military families are especially vulnerable.
Military members are 16.6 percent more likely to be victimized by employment scams, according to the Better Business Bureau. Military spouses are also much more likely to fall prey to a business fraud scam. There are several reasons why this could be.
For one, many members of the military are young — as young as 17. For the first time, they are also away from their social support networks, such as older or more financially experienced family members. Plus, they might be lonely because of a lack of local connections.
Military families also move frequently. This means that even older and more experienced service members and their families might not have reliable sources on honest local businesses for things like buying and selling houses and cars.
Finally, the thing that makes military members and their families particularly attractive targets: They have a steady source of income.
What Kinds of Scams Target Military Families?
The FTC says that many scammers impersonate government agencies. Military service members and their families frequently need to deal with the government, so what’s one more phone call asking for information?
For several years, the IRS was the agency most associated with scammers, who called and demanded payment for back taxes. But maybe too many people wised up, because there’s less of that right now. Instead, scammers are now impersonating the FTC.
“You might not know this, but the FTC just settled a big lawsuit, and they have money for you,” they might say. “All you have to do is send the taxes you owe, and they’ll send you money.” Not!
Other scammers haunt caregiver job boards, since military spouses often look for part-time caregiving work when they move to a new area.
You might get an email saying that you’ve got the job, but that you must buy supplies from their vendor before you start. This could be a wheelchair or another seemingly essential resource.
The scammer might even send you a check for more than the supplies cost. Then they will ask you to wire-transfer back the extra funds. Of course, when the check you deposited turns out to be fake, you’ve lost your money.
Military members might also be targeted by scams that are aimed at groups with a large military population. Scammers have recently targeted people who are behind on their student loan debt; people who might have debt in collections; and people who might have served, or whose family members might have served, after 9/11 (this one is especially awful).
Scams Aimed at Military Supporters
The FTC is also pretty worried about scammers using people’s positive feelings for the military to trick them into parting with their hard-earned cash.
For example, a scammer might call and pretend to be a charity that helps military members. Or they might even pretend to be a service member in need.
Scammers will sometimes ask for financial support to pay for food and lodging while deployed — even though the military covers all of your expenses during deployments. They’re counting on people’s sympathy.
Online romance scams are another area in which people pretending to be service members can take advantage of targets. Let’s say you’re on a dating site and start messaging with a woman who is supposedly in the Army. She seems as if she understands you really well. You quickly move to texting or emailing outside of the dating site.
But just as you’re about to set up a real-life meeting, she messages to say that she’s being deployed and can’t meet you in person. That’s when she asks for a small loan to help her care for her dog while she’s serving overseas.
It seems as if it would be easy to recognize this as a scam. But if you’ve come to trust the person over time, and if she has a sympathetic story, it can be harder than you’d think to hear any alarm bells.
Preventing Military Scams
Overall, most of the best advice for military members, their families, and their supporters is the same as it is for the rest of us:
- Never respond to pressure to make any immediate financial changes. If the person on the other end of the line demands payment the same day, or insists that this is a one-time opportunity that will never come again, you should probably hang up.
- Slow down, take a breath, and consult several people you trust before taking any financial action over the phone or the internet.
- Be especially careful if you’re being asked to pay for anything in cash or through any transaction that can’t be traced. This includes gift cards, wire transfers, cash reload cards, and more.
For military scams in particular, it helps to be aware of how the U.S. armed services actually work. Someone’s commanding officer will never get on the phone to back up a request for cash. And as mentioned above, military members don’t need financial help to pay for food while on deployment.
Again, if you’re in doubt: Do a little research. If the person is genuine and legitimately needs help, they’ll be able to wait a day or two while you check into things.
What to Do If You’ve Been Scammed
Hopefully you are already alert to scams. But if you came to this site looking for solutions, head to IdentityTheft.gov to get personalized recommendations.
If you're a military service member, you're also entitled to an active duty alert, which forces businesses to take extra steps before agreeing to grant credit in your name. It also removes your name from nationwide credit reporting marketing lists for two years.
If you want to use the active duty alert, simply contact one of the three major credit reporting companies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion), and they'll ensure that the alert is set. You will also be given free electronic credit monitoring, and you will be able to designate a specific person in your life that can add or remove the alert at will.
You should also know that American consumers are entitled to a free credit freeze. If you suspect you’ve been a victim of fraud, take advantage of that. It can be the step that saves your credit score — especially if the scammers gained access to any of your personal information such as your address or birthday.
If you're a military member, the active duty alert will likely be more of a help than the credit freeze, so it's typically best to seek it out first.
The Bottom Line
It’s tragic that scammers go out of their way to prey on vulnerable people, whether they are the elderly, the less educated, or service members and their supporters. But it’s a reality of life, so we all need to be on guard and to teach our friends and family members how to spot and avoid scammers.
If you know people that could be helped by the Military Consumer website, make sure to let them know about it.