Scams can affect any consumer, but military personnel and their families are statistically more likely to fall victim to costly and embarrassing fraud. This is particularly true of active-duty servicemembers.
According to the 2018 Better Business Bureau Scam Tracker Risk Report, active military, veterans and military spouses were only slightly more susceptible to fall victim to a scam than the general public, but their median loss of $200 when falling victim to a scam was a third higher than the general public's median loss of $150.
The Scam Tracker report notes active-duty military personnel are often targeted for their youth and steady paychecks, and military families are often required to put faith in others while juggling deployment and frequent moves, which leaves them particularly vulnerable. Nearly 10 percent of reports submitted to BBB Scam Tracker in 2018 came from the military community.
Employment scams and home improvement scams are the two riskiest scams for the military community, according to the Scam Tracker report.
Military reservists and National Guard members, as well as recently separated active-duty personnel, should be wary of employment scams when looking for a job after a deployment or discharge. Scammers will ask for money with your application, or will ask for personal information before you are hired. Commonly impersonated organizations include the Internal Revenue Service and other government agencies.
Home improvement scams are particularly risky when servicemembers find themselves needing to arrange for home repairs during a deployment. Fly-by-night contractors often go door-to-door to offer assistance with concerns they claim to have noticed around your house; this is a particular concern after storms, when such contractors to help victims clear debris or patch up homes. In reality, they take the consumer's money and disappear without performing any work.
Military personnel and other consumers also should be aware of substandard business practices by home contractors. In BBB St. Louis' service area, general contractors and home improvement businesses were the third most complained-about business category for complaints in 2018, with more than 2,400 complaints about such businesses processed by BBB St. Louis. Common complaints included failure to perform work as contracted or issue a refund and delays in completing projects in a timely manner.
Online purchase scams also ranked as a high-risk scam for military personnel in the Scam Tracker report. For the general public, they ranked as the second-riskiest scam of 2018. Consumers targeted by this scam reported paying money for goods that never arrived and being unable to make contact with the vendor to get a refund.
Also, active-duty military personnel should be on guard against romance scammers, who start online romantic relationships with victims, then ask for money. Many scammers steal military personnel's identities and photos in order to impersonate them. Other romance scammers target military personnel, solicit compromising pictures and then extort their victims. Romance scams were the subject of a BBB in-depth investigative study in 2019; a February 2019 follow-up study examined how victims of romance scams become "money mules" in other types of fraud.
Housing rental scams also are of concern to military personnel, especially active-duty military undertaking a change of station and conducting a housing search from afar. These scammers commonly lure consumers with beautiful pictures, great amenities, low rent and a sense of urgency. In reality, the home is already rented or doesn't exist, leaving the victim out hundreds of dollars and potentially without a home.
BBB advises military personnel — and all consumers — to follow these tips in order to avoid being defrauded:
Before doing business with any company, check out their BBB Business Profile at bbb.org or by calling 888-996-3887. These profiles include a rating from A+ to F and show whether a company has complaints and how the company responded to the complaints; many businesses also have customer reviews that show how they've delivered service to customers.
Avoid employment scams by researching job postings and companies carefully. Never pay money to apply for a job.
Get three bids for every home improvement job, and if you are deployed or otherwise unavailable to oversee repairs yourself, make sure that someone communicates with the contractor about your wishes. Never pay for the entire job up front; instead, pay a third at the beginning of the job, a third in the middle of the job, and a third when the job is finished.
Be cautious of all online relationships. Never send money to strangers.
Carefully research the owner and the home. Look for the property owner's name, phone number, and email address online. Ask to inspect the property and review the lease before making any decisions. If you can't visit an apartment, condo or house yourself, ask someone you trust to go and confirm that it is what was advertised.
Report any scams to BBB Scam Tracker. Never be embarrassed to report problems to BBB or the authorities.
For other assistance, go to bbb.org or call 573-886-8965.
Michelle Gleba is the Mid-Missouri regional director for Better Business Bureau.