An investigation by two South Carolina journalists has led to the filing of criminal and civil lawsuits against the alleged culprits in an investment scam that has targeted thousands of veterans, forcing many of them into bankruptcy.
Over the past year, Kirk Brown and Carol Motsinger of South Carolina’s Greenville News have been conducting the investigation into alleged scams that involved “the buying and selling of military benefits,” a practice which, the journalists observed, “at least seven judges have ruled violates state and federal laws.”
According to Greenville News’s investigative series called Indebted, the alleged scams duped at least 3,000 victims across the country in at least 33 states, leaving many of them deeply indebted:
Many of the investors said they had no idea their savings were used to buy monthly military income. Some who did know thought they were helping veterans. One investor served in the Vietnam War. Another’s father was in the Coast Guard during World War II.
In an interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, Motsinger said judges have ruled that the practice of buying and selling monthly military benefits violates “anti-assignment laws.”
The alleged scams target veterans by offering them a ready amount of cash in exchange for all or part of their monthly military benefits for a determined period of time.
The journalist explained how the alleged scams have been conducted:
So, what they agree to is the cash advance from around $5,000 to nearly $98,000, our reporting showed. And they agree to pay back this money, like you said, over a period of time – usually four to 10 years. And what was not disclosed in the allegations – the lawsuit’s outline is that there were really high commissions in some of these enterprises, sometimes up to 50%, as well as hidden fees and other exorbitant interest rates, sometimes as high as 240%.
She added, in one case, a veteran in Minnesota who wanted a cash advance of $2,700 for reliable transportation, ended up owing $27,000 on that advance.
Motsinger said veterans have been especially easy to target because they have a “guaranteed stream of income.”
“[O]ne of the sources we talked to said that’s sort of, like, waving a piece of bacon in front of a scammer, right?” she said. “Then also, you know, they did target veterans who were receiving disability. We know that mounting medical costs around trying to cope and treat some physical and mental disabilities … that does put veterans in some financial binds.”
The journalist told NPR the alleged scammers need only a phone, computer, and an Internet connection to reach veterans:
So, what they’re able to do is, you know, operate in one state. And then maybe a regulatory agency or other, you know, commission would ban the practice, but then they would, so to speak, open up shop using a website in another state. They often changed the names of their businesses, as well. They’re sort of able to stay kind of one step ahead of authorities.
According to Motsinger, the FBI believes hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost to the alleged scammers.
In response to the exposé, she said legal aid organizations have offered to help veterans who have been victimized.
“And we’re also reaching out to other representatives ’cause Congress has – in the past, there’s been three such bills that have come up in recent years that would add some protections against this type of alleged scam,” Motsinger added. “And so, I know that we’re, in the coming week, going to be pursuing sort of what can be done at that federal level.”