Veterans Affairs officials this weekend launched a new effort to combat fraud tied to department benefits, in response to fears that the rapid expansion of assistance in the last year could invite more scammers to prey on vulnerable veterans.
The work includes a new online page — www.va.gov/vsafe — outlining how veterans can spot scams, report suspicious actors and get benefits assistance for free. Department leaders said the information will also be woven into veterans’ regular health care visits and interactions with benefits processors, to frequently emphasize the resources available.
“We’re getting this into the hands of our regional office directors, we’re getting this into the hands of our medical center teams, so they can be talking to veterans in very plain language about this,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a press conference with reporters on Friday.
So far this fiscal year, VA has investigated nearly 12,500 cases of potential benefits fraud and provided support to 1,164 victims of benefits scams. Some of that caseload is linked to the new military toxic exposure benefits legislation signed into law in August 2022, which for the first time provides financial compensation for a host of illnesses linked to war zone burn pit smoke inhalation.
“Any time there’s new benefits or new money that’s been allocated to individuals, there’s an opportunity for fraudsters and scamsters to come in,” said Maureen Elias, VA Deputy Chief of Staff.
“What we are seeing is a large increase in unaccredited service reps who are charging veterans to file their initial claim, which is not legal. They’re operating in a gray area, and some of them are charging up to six times whatever a veteran receives in benefits payouts.”
Elias, an Army veteran and a military spouse, recounted for reporters how her family was cheated out of thousands by a scammer who confused her with promises to use her veterans benefits to help pay off her home loans. She said one of the reasons she was susceptible was because she didn’t know how to check whether what the company was promising matched up with VA rules and regulations.
“So now, we want to oversaturate veterans with fraud and scam information, so that they know how to recognize it and what to do when it comes to them,” she said.
McDonough has been warning veterans of the potential for predatory claims companies during recent speeches before veterans groups, and said part of the outreach effort on the issue will include partnering with those organizations to direct veterans to proper channels for questions regarding their benefits.
Veterans and survivors have filed nearly 2.3 million disability claims so far in fiscal 2023, the most ever in department history.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.