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How to avoid financial scams

Have you been the victim of a financial scam? Is a credit card company charging you too much interest? Are you paying extra fees for that refinanced mortgage?

If so, you may want to contact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) for some guidance on how to deal with financial predators of all stripes. If you are a servicemember or veteran, the CFPB’s Office of Servicemember Affairs (OSA) is especially interested in helping to solve your financial problems.

Robert Frank of the OSA briefed Legionnaires about the help CFPB provides at a March 21 presentation that was part of the American Legion’s Department Service Officers School being held in Washington.

Frank said that CFPB is in business to educate consumers who seek financial advice on credit cards, mortgages, “pension poaching,” student loans, debt collection, payday loans and many other money issues. About 70 percent of complaints lodged at CFPB come from veterans and military retirees.

OSA works to ensure that military personnel and their families have their own voice at CFPB. The office monitors military consumer complaints and their eventual resolution. It works with federal, state and local partners to address financial concerns of the military community, and provides the tools for making the right financial decisions, and for avoiding unfair financial business practices.

Individuals usually learn about finances first from their parents, Frank said, then pick up more information in school and in the military. But sometimes that isn’t enough, which is where OSA comes in; it provides “plain language, just-in-time training” for veterans and servicemembers who file complaints. With the departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs, the office is putting together a pilot program to conduct finanical coaching sessions across the country for military communities.

Once a consumer files a complaint against a company, CFPB reviews it and routes it to the appropriate government agency for action, which then forwards the complaint to the company in question. Frank said companies must acknowledge receipt of a complaint within 15 days and reply to it within two months. If consumers are satisfied with the responses they get, no further action is taken.

“If you aren’t satisfied, we will assign an investigator to see if they are breaking the law or committing deceptive practices,” Frank said. About 80 percent of complaints are remedied by the companies’ responses,

Major consumer financial issues that CFPB and OSA are currently monitoring include:

Pension advance products: An offer to pay military retirees a lump-sum payment in return for their monthly retirement benefits. These advances might amount to only pennies on the dollar and are reported to carry interest rates from 27 to 106 percent.

GI Bill education benefits: Some institutions of higher education are aggressively marketing themselves to student veterans and their families, encouraging them to use expensive private loans to pay for tuition and fees not covered by the GI Bill.

Aid & Attendance Benefit: Some individuals and companies use this benefit as a “hook” to sell services, offering help in obtaining this VA benefit for severely disabled veterans who are eligible. But they first require the customer to sign up for financial services, then move the client’s assets into irrevocable trusts in order to “qualify” for those services (“pension-poaching”).

Mortgage advertisements: Many advertisements from mortgage lenders seem to be directed at veterans, promising special deals or implying VA approval. Others use the lure of a “no-payment” reverse mortgage to troll for older veterans and military retirees who are desperate to remain in their homes.

More than 30 percent of complaints received by CFPB are related to refinancing of home loans. A recurring problem, Frank said, is when one company sells loans to another. Veterans and servicemembers have to start all over in the negotiation process. “It might be legal but not fair to the consumer.”

When contacted by phone, Frank says consumers always have the right to tell the scammer to “cease and desist -- and don’t call my workplace, either.” They can also request paperwork from the caller. “If they are legitimate, they’ll send you the paperwork....They are required to do that.” Any threats of arrest or felony fraud charges are strictly illegal, Frank said.

The number one thing that veterans and servicemembers should do, Franks said, is to “check out your credit report -- it’s free. We just want people to stop and think for a moment before they get scammed. You will always have time.”

To submit a complaint to CFPB, consumers can:

Go online.

Call toll-free at (855) 411-2372 or TTY/TDD at (855) 729-2372

Fax to (855) 237-2392

Mail a letter to: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, P.O. Box 4503, Iowa City, Iowa  52244

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