Service members, military retirees, and their families are sadly not immune from consumer and financial fraud and are often directly targeted. High mobility, a steady government paycheck with publicly available information on salaries, BAH, etc., by rank and location, and other factors contribute to bad actors seeking to take advantage of service members and their families. According to the Federal Trade Commission, military members reported higher median loses from consumer fraud - including identity theft and imposter scams - than civilians.
Being embroiled in a consumer or financial fraud issue can add undue stress on service members and their families. At its worst, it can impact a person's credit and financial health - which could impact a security clearance - and, if a service member is distracted and concerned by an issue, it can impact morale and mission focus.
Criminal fraud should always be reported to the correct authorities (which could be your command, local authorities, NCIS, and others). However, sometimes people are not entirely sure where to go, or the lines are not very clear. The victim still needs the bad actor to stop, and plenty of consumer issues are not criminal in nature - it may be a civil disagreement over a contract - but can still have a big impact The Legal Assistance office can help address those concerns for service members, retirees, and eligible family members. Legal assistance has been provided continuously by the armed forces since 1943, and the attorneys at your Region Legal Service Office have seen almost any conceivable issue, usually more than a few times.
How can your Legal Assistance office help? A number of consumer and financial protection issues commonly come up. Issues, and the corresponding actions taken, include:
- Consumer financial issues, predatory lending, and the protections under the Servicemember's Civil Relief Act (SCRA) - including addressing excessive credit card interest rates, high-interest loans such as car loans or personal loans prior to the entry of service, and more. Legal assistance attorneys can discuss the relevant protections and can assist with taking action. This can include, for example, contacting a credit card company charging a rate in violation of the SCRA.
- Contracts and consumer scams, automobile purchases, warranties, and service contracts, personal property storage and moving issues (for example damaged goods), and consumer fraud issues. Legal assistance attorneys may contact and negotiate with businesses, including submitting complaint letters, cease and desist letters, and more. This can also include, where appropriate, warning the larger military community to avoid doing business with a particular individual or business by putting the offender on a banned business list. Even the threat of being put on such a list can be a strong motivator for businesses to take corrective action.
- Referring cases as necessary to the Department of Justice (DOI), the American Bar Association Military Pro Bono Program, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) - which enforces federal consumer financial laws by investigating cases of potential wrongdoing and taking action. Referring clients to resources for the temporary provision of financial assistance such as the Navy Marine Corps Relief Society.
- Addressing the interaction of consumer and credit issues with other issues such as divorce and separation. This includes, for example, a partner running up credit card bills during a pending divorce.
If you are facing a consumer or financial protection issue, do not suffer alone. The discussions with your attorney are confidential and are for your benefit. If you find yourself in that situation, contact your local legal assistance office for an appointment.