by Jake Hughes
Let me paint you a picture.
There I was, 18 years old, a young private fresh out of Basic, sitting in my barracks in Fort Riley, Kansas — when I get a phone call. The person on the phone said he was a contractor for Microsoft, who needed to update my computer drives and had a special offer for virus protection software.
This sounded great, right? My computer can run faster, and I won’t get viruses. To do so, he needed access to my computer. Oh, and for the virus protection, I had to transfer some money into their accounts and they would give most of the money back.
Clearly, I got scammed.
Sadly, my story is not a unique one. Service members and veterans are rich targets for online scammers. In 2012, there were more than 67,000 such scam and fraud complaints from military families, according to the Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book.
“A service member has a steady paycheck guaranteed by the U.S. government,” says Carol Kando-Pineda, a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) lawyer who manages the agency’s outreach to the military. “That’s manna from heaven for scam artists. If they can convince them to part with it, that’s guaranteed money.”
Scams and fraud are nothing new, according to True Brown, director of financial crime investigations for the insurance company USAA.
“Scams have been around since the dawn of time,” he says. “It used to be face-to-face, then it went through the U.S. Mail, and with the advent of social media, scammers now have the ability to get their message out to hundreds of thousands of people at a time.”
Facebook, Twitter and some online dating sites are prime grounds for scammers hoping to gain veterans’ and service members’ trust. One of the primary types of swindles is called a “Romance Scam.” A scammer will ask to be your friend, attempt to gain your trust, then eventually ask for money for one thing or another.
Another type is the “Imposter Scam,” which is what I fell for. Someone pretends to be with an organization you trust, telling you they need information or attempt to sell you a phony product. Sometimes they will even pose as a deployed member of the military and ask for donations or handouts.
Some scammers directly target people because of their association with the military, says Kelsey Owens of the Better Business Bureau.
“One of the more common scams we see targeting service members and veterans are high-priced military loans. This is where they will offer loans that promise a guarantee or instant approval, but they will come with lots of hidden fees and extremely high interest rates, sometimes as high as 28%.”
Veterans are very susceptible to these types of scams.
Maureen K. Ohlhausen, acting chair of the FTC, says trust is the name of the game.
“The military builds a sense of trust within that community, and scammers aim to prey on that trust,” she says. “It’s when people are going through life transitions” — such as Veterans readjusting to civilian life — “that scammers will try and get in there,” she says.
“They will say they are here to help you, or help you find a job.”
Scams evolve with the times, but following a few common-sense rules can help you avoid falling victim. Things like regularly checking your credit score and not giving out personally identifying information to strangers. The best defense, however, is simple attention to detail.
“The old axiom proves true,” says Brown. “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”