New moves to protect military members from financial fraud
By Karen Haywood Queen
Unscrupulous car dealers are counting on the service member missing a payment so they can repossess the car.
In another case, involving mortgage modification scams, the FTC collected a record $7.5 million civil penalty from Mortgage Investors Corp. of Ohio, one of the country's largest refinancers of veteran home loans. The commission said the company presented current and former service members with false claims that low-interest, fixed-rate mortgages were available at no cost to them. The FTC also alleged the company violated the Do Not Call provisions of the Telemarketing Sales Rule.
The military has a different tool in its arsenal against rip-off artists. It can ban service members from patronizing certain businesses. Car dealerships have been a particular target. For example, in Virginia and elsewhere, unscrupulous car dealers have misled military personnel into buying cars they don't want or can't afford. The service members are then trapped into unfair contracts for vehicles sold at inflated prices. Some dealers "churn" car sales -- selling a car the dealer knows the service member can't afford, then repossessing that car and selling it again.
"Automobile dealers are keenly aware of what young service members earn," says Gerri Walsh, president of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Foundation (FINRA). "They're encouraged to buy the most expensive car they can afford. The terms the service member is being offered are often not favorable. Unscrupulous car dealers are counting on the service member missing a payment so they can repossess the car."
FTC's page for military families -- information about credit products, car buying, identity theft and more
Military Financial Readiness Program -- free financial counseling, education tools and training from FINRA for service members and their spouses
SaveAndInvest.org -- information and military financial toolkits from FINRA
Moneytopia -- e-learning game from FINRA
National Military Family Association -- links to service resources, plus information about taxes and other laws
Military Saves -- campaign to encourage military families to save money every month
BBB Military line -- financial literacy and consumer protection resources via 112 Better Business Bureaus across the U.S.
A Salute to Smart Investing -- online publication with information about savings, investing, credit and scams targeted at the military
The Joint Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board for Southeastern Virginia and Northeastern North Carolina has banned its members from patronizing various area car dealerships, including Victory Lane Motors in Norfolk, Virginia (whose listing on MilitaryCarDealers.com says "We specialize in the unique military car buying experience"). The dealership was declared off-limits for military personnel in August 2013, allowed back in November 2013 and then once again banned after complaints from service members led the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to investigate.
Know your rights and
Service members have a number of resources to help keep their money safe. Financial information and education programs abound.
Counseling is available for specific questions. The Military Financial Readiness Program, which was created by FINRA and the Department of Defense, trains military spouses to become accredited financial counselors, providing both help to service members and a portable career for spouses. These counselors walk service members through financial activities such as planning to buy a car, budgeting and other topics, Walsh says.
The Military Lending Act caps interest rates charged to service members, spouses and certain dependents at 36 percent per year for payday loans, auto title loans and tax refund anticipation loans. But service members in financial straits need not pay even that much, says Shields. Each branch of the military is affiliated with a private nonprofit emergency relief organization dedicated to providing no-interest loans (and sometimes outright grants) to active and retired soldiers and their dependents when there is a valid need. Army Emergency Relief is among these.
The top needs receiving approval by AER are for rent and mortgage help, followed by car repair, Shields says. Most loans are $2,500 or less, but there is no limit. Other expenses the service routinely covers include rental and replacement vehicles, relocation/travel expenses, dependent dental care, repairing of HVAC systems, repair of major appliances, child car seats, cranial helmets for babies and basic furniture.
"One of the biggest challenges is making sure all soldiers know assistance is available," Shields says. "We tell them, 'If you get in trouble, don't go downtown -- come to Army Emergency Relief.' The other services are the same way. Assistance is available 24/7."
If service members are not stationed near their branch's emergency relief office, they can seek help at another service's agency, Shields says. (The other relief agencies are Air Force Aid Society Section, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and Coast Guard Mutual Assistance.) And if the service member is more than 50 miles from any military installation, the Red Cross will process the relief application.
Active Duty Alert
Soldiers who are serving overseas can get an active duty military alert from each of the three credit reporting bureaus -- Equifax, TransUnion and Experian -- to help minimize the risk of fraud and ID theft while deployed. The alert requires extra verification before credit is issued and lasts one year. The service member's name also is removed from all pre-approved or firm offers of credit for two years, the credit reporting companies say.
If you want even more protection, you might look into a credit freeze, also known as a security freeze. A freeze locks access to your credit file, meaning fraudsters can't open new accounts in your name. It also keeps lenders and creditors from viewing your file, so it's not a tool for everyone.
Armed with financial education and a sense of vigilance, military service members may provide their own best defense against money woes.See related: Military families remain easy prey for ID theft, Military gets thicker armor against predatory loans, 12 tips to help military families avoid financial rip-offs