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NEWS | July 29, 2013

Financially fit: How to spot and avoid scams

By Erin Wittkop Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON - As a member of a military family, the chances that you, your spouse or maybe both of you literally had to go through hell AND high water to earn your cut from Uncle Sam are greater than most. It stands to reason then, that protecting your hard-earned livelihood might carry an extra special significance in your life. (If it doesn't, it should.)

Scam artists are always at the ready to prey on unknowing victims, both civilian and military. However, military families can be uniquely vulnerable to them. Thankfully, the Defense Department's Office of Family Policy, Children and Youth is spearheading efforts to educate military families, protect them from financial predators and empower them to have the financial flexibility necessary to reach their future goals.

I recently sat down with Barbara Thompson, Office of Family Policy, Children and Youth director, to talk about this topic and find out what military families can do to protect themselves. She emphasizes that best way for service members and their families to arm themselves against scams is to conduct their own research and do thoroughly check credentials before making purchases or major decisions.

"Sometimes they [scams] look official; they look like they're being sponsored by a government agency, but again it's deception. It's deceit. We really want our service members and their families to think things through, do their research, read the fine print before they sign on the dotted line." Thompson also notes that official looking or not, if a product or service seems too good to be true it's more than likely not legal.

Scams that target service members and their families are many and varied. Thompson says among the most common are rental and moving, foreclosure, loan, auto-loan and credit and debit card scams. "You may decide to do a move on your own and find someone who doesn't have liability insurance, or doesn't deliver your household goods to your residence [and instead] goes off with them."

She also advises not to cut corners when making decisions about the services you use.  "During a move you're stressed out because you want to make sure everything is done correctly; you don't want to go into debt. Finding the cheapest way out may not be the best route."

All of this advice is great, but where do you start and what resources should you trust as you do your research? She has some recommendations for you:

1. Your Installation

Personal Financial Managers - All military installations should have personal financial managers on staff within the local family assistance center. These individuals are certified financial counselors dedicated to helping military families manage their personal finances. They also have the inside scoop on area businesses and which ones should be avoided.
Commander's or Installation Lists - Most installations offer a list of approved and off-limits businesses in the area. Become familiar with this list and follow the advice accordingly.
Legal Assistance Officers - These individuals are available to offer legal advice if you have a concern or have encountered a business that may be scamming you.

2. Websites

Better Business Bureau and Better Business Bureau Military Line - This website is dedicated to promoting trustworthy and ethical business practices by cataloguing and rating businesses and the services they provide. They include in-depth reviews and ratings for organizations in their database. Heed the advice you find here.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau - This website offers information and assistance to help protect and advise American consumers.

Federal Trade Commission's Scam Watch - A great resource that offers in-depth information on scams, managing your money and credit cards and dealing with debt.

Military OneSource - A great resource for military families, Military OneSource offers financial counseling and numerous resources for planning and protecting your finances.
3. Your Community

Ask people in your community what their experiences have been with area businesses. Friends, neighbors and community members can vital information that will help you determine where your money is best spent.

These resources are a great, reliable way to set your family on the path to making informed financial decisions.

"The bottom line is you have to be a smart and savvy consumer," Thompson says. "You need to really think about your purchases, your purchasing power, and do your due diligence to make sure you're getting the right information and the right product for the money you're going to spend."