Experiencing an injury or illness as a result of your qualifying active service in the U.S. Armed Forces can entitle you to disability compensation if that resulted in a diagnosis for a current condition or disability. To collect the benefits that you as a veteran are entitled to, you’ll need to file the appropriate claims and applications to prove that you qualify, and to begin collecting.
For disabilities, you are entitled to medical coverage for service-connected conditions so long as you receive a 0 percentage VA disability rating or higher, which means that you have a current diagnosis. From there you are entitled to tax-free monthly payments from the VA to replace the loss in economic value that your disability may have resulted in.
Additional benefits that are being targeted by scammers are the homes of veterans and their spouses. As the VA provides home loan opportunities for veterans, scammers have begun impersonating the VA or related parties to gain control of mortgage payments, to put homes into foreclosure, or to seize the rights to the properties themselves.
In this article we’ll explore the scams that are targeting veterans, how to guard against them, and the purpose of the GUARD VA Benefits Act in support of targeting these scams and ending them for good by adding criminal penalties and increasing enforcement.
Predatory Practices Spurred the Creation of the GUARD Act
The purpose of the GUARD VA Benefits Act was to do just that, to protect the benefits that veterans and their families are entitled to from fraudulent companies and predators. As we’ll explore in-depth below, these practices include fraudulent phone calls, mailers, and even television advertisements meant to lure veterans into their scams.
As noted by NH State Veterans Council Vice Chair of the New Hampshire Disabled American Veterans Andrew Patterson, the GUARD Act “will go further to protect our veterans from scams from unauthorized vendors charging fees in the beginning process of a veteran attempting to gain VA benefits, specifically compensation and pension benefits.”
What is the GUARD VA Benefits Act?
The GUARD VA Benefits Act of 2023, otherwise known as S. 740, is a bill to amend title 38 of the United States Code. The purpose of the GUARD VA Benefits Act is to reinstate criminal penalties for persons charging veterans unauthorized fees in relation to claims for benefits under the laws that are administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and for other reasons. The bill is presently in the current stage of the legislative process, and is being co-sponsored by 30 individuals total across parties, including 21 Democrats, 7 Republicans, and 2 Independents.
S.740 is a bill that is in the United States Congress. For a bill to become law, it must be passed through both the Senate and House in identical form, and then be signed by the President to become law. Whether or not the bill ultimately passes depends upon the amount of support that it receives in both houses of government, and by their constituents. Letting your representatives know that you support the GUARD VA Benefits Act, S.740, can help to garner the support needed to make it happen.
Free VA-Accredited Assistance is Available to Help with Your Initial VA Disability Application
The predatory companies that are targeting veterans during the initial application period are being addressed through the GUARD VA Benefits Act as the initial application and related guidance is supposed to be free. When it comes time to file your initial VA disability claim, you’ll file VA Form 526EZ, and you’ll need to meet the following criteria:
- You must have a current diagnosis for a condition that is recognized by the VA, such as PTSD, anxiety, physical injuries, cancer, and a long list of other disabilities
- Your current condition must be connected to your active service
- You should have an expert medical opinion that links your current condition to an injury, illness, or other event during your qualifying active service
Providing the VA with sufficient evidence for your claim to be approved is essential to save yourself and your family a lengthy appeals process. Predatory companies claiming to offer valuable services to assist veterans in the processing of their claims are out there offering to help with the application, but in reality, they are providing a disservice. You are able to receive free assistance from the VA and VA-accredited representatives in the filing of your initial claim, and your local VA office can help direct you to them.
A VA Disability Lawyer Can Help with Appeals and Supplemental Claims
While VA disability attorneys are VA-accredited, they are not allowed to charge fees during the initial application period for VA disability benefits. The time to contact a VA disability lawyer from our firm is when:
- Your initial application has been denied and you need to appeal the decision of the VA, or
- You need to file a supplemental claim for the same or similar matter that was denied more than a year prior. This is essentially when you need to reopen a prior denial for the same or similar condition.
The filing of your initial claim needs to include sufficient information and evidence to prove that you have a current diagnosis for a condition that the VA recognizes, and that your current diagnosis is as a result of a service-connected incident or event. For example, if you are presently suffering from PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, you need a current diagnosis from a medical professional of PTSD, corroboration of the stressor (with some exceptions), and a professional medical opinion that your PTSD is linked to your qualifying active duty.
The VA is looking for particular information that is presented in the format they require in order to approve your initial application. Working with the type of unqualified firms and companies that have been targeted by the GUARD ACT can lead to denials because your evidence is not correctly presented. It is essential to include the evidence required by the VA to accurately provide you with a VA disability rating for your service-connected disability, or you risk a denial that can lead to a substantial delay in the receipt of the benefits that you deserve.
When your initial application has been denied, it is important to understand that the appeals process can take a number of months or even years to process. You will not receive compensation during this time, but if your denial is reversed on appeal, you receive retroactive benefits from the time of your initial application. Given that a 100 percent disability rating entitles a single veteran with no dependents to almost $4,000 each month in tax-free payments, years of back-payments can result in substantial sums.
New Claims Add New Conditions to Your Combined VA Disability Rating
A new claim is appropriate when you have developed new service-related disabilities. This could happen when a condition such as cancer emerges many years after exposure to certain chemicals like Agent Orange, or when a primary condition like a back injury leads to a secondary condition such as hypertension from pain medication use.
The filing of a new claim is strongly supported through the consultation with a VA disability lawyer. Although VA disability lawyers will not charge you a fee for an initial consultation and cannot represent you for a fee until after an initial denial, consulting with one anyway is a good idea. We can help refer you to medical experts in our network to provide you with a nexus letter that links your condition to your active service. This information must be presented to the VA using certain forms and in particular formats, and consulting with an experienced VA disability lawyer can provide valuable feedback.
Qualified Assistance is Essential as VA Disability Claims are Complex
Some incidents or injuries during active duty, such as exposure to Agent Orange, allow for certain conditions to be presumptively linked to your qualifying active service. This means that you do not need to prove a link with a nexus letter or expert opinion, only that you have a qualifying condition, and served at particular places during particular times.
As you can see, the appeals process and the filing of a supplemental claim is a complex process. An appeal can take anywhere from 6 months to years to process, so it is essential that your initial application be as accurate as possible. Unqualified non-accredited representatives however have been providing veterans with insufficient guidance throughout the initial application process, leading to unnecessary denials and lengthy delays in the receipt of the benefits and compensation that you deserve. Some of the largest retroactive awards we have handled for disabled veterans (approaching a million dollars in retroactive pay for one veteran) have been in cases where veterans have doggedly pursued appeals without giving up. Many advocates shy away from appealing and so they end up short-changing veterans on the back pay. In other cases, taking cases to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims is often necessary to receive large retroactive awards in complicated cases. For example, we obtained 54 years of retroactive pay for one claimant following a successful appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Only a lawyer admitted to practice before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims can assist with such appeals.
Protecting VA Disability and PACT Act Benefits from Predators
At the moment there are a number of television commercials, social media posts, and other advertisements concerning Camp Lejeune or PACT Act benefits and the potential benefits you could receive related to them. You might be wondering if you are eligible for the benefits that these advertisements are discussing, and whether or not you need the assistance of these companies to acquire them. This interest is what these companies are taking advantage of, as while you might be entitled to VA disability benefits, some of these companies may not legally charge the fees they intend upon charging you.
File Your PACT Act Benefits Safely to Claim Them In Full
VA News communicates that veterans are being targeted by predatory companies that the VA does not recognize in the preparation of VA benefits claims. These companies have been charging what the VA considers “absurd fees”, or they may “require you to pay a portion of your VA benefits.” The VA communicates that they will never charge you to apply for the benefits that you could be entitled to.
If you believe that you might be entitled to VA benefits, the VA suggests the following preventive steps to protect yourself against fraud and scams:
- Submit your application directly to the VA. When you plan to file a claim, it is essential to know that you can submit it online through the VA directly, or in person at any regional office
- There are no costs associated with filing a claim for your benefits, and no hidden fees
- Be particularly suspicious of advertisements and marketing from companies providing information about recent changes in laws like those for toxic-exposure benefit claims that claim veterans can only gain their benefits with their assistance
- To avoid paying illegal fees to companies that are not recognized by the VA, you can use the VA Office of General Counsel (OGC) Accreditation Search in order to confirm and validate the credentials of any individual or party offering to help you with your claim
- Don’t sign any contracts in which you agree an unauthorized company may charge you a fee to assist with your initial VA claim
- Use only accredited representatives for help in the processing of your claim
- VA-accredited agents and attorneys are allowed to charge veterans to help with your claim only when their assistance is provided in connection with a proceeding after the VA has made an initial decision on your claim
- No company or individual is authorized by the VA to charge you a fee for your initial VA claim
- Exercise caution when you receive calls from companies that claim to be reaching out to you on behalf of the VA. You may call the VA directly by calling 1-800-827-1000 when you aren’t sure whether a message that you received was authentic
- Make sure to thoroughly review any documents that you are presented by a party offering to help with your VA benefits
- Do not sign an incomplete or blank agreement, as the other party is then able to fill in terms that you did not agree to, and could be harmful to you, later on
- Always review a completed form before signing, and require that you are provided with a copy to keep for your records
Veterans and their survivors who believe that they could be entitled to VA benefits or PACT Act benefits can find more information at their local VA office, online, or by calling the VA directly.
Avoid Veteran Home Loan Refinancing Scams
An increasingly common scam being run on veterans by fraudulent companies is VA home loan scams. Veterans and military spouses have reported receiving fraudulent calls as well as mailers from companies that claim to have an affiliation with the VA, the government, or their home loan servicer. Caller ID spoofing helps these scammers appear legitimate, and if you have any suspicion as to the legitimacy of a company contacting you, reach out to the VA to confirm.
The purpose of these advertisements is to encourage the veteran to refinance their home, to agree to a loan modification, or to pay your preexisting loan through the purchase of money orders. Some of these fraudulent communications have even tried to convince the veteran or military spouse that their home is at risk of foreclosure.
The VA advises you to be particularly suspicious of any lender or individual who reaches out to you and does the following:
- Advises you to cancel your mortgage and to resend your funds somewhere else
- Requests that you make your mortgage payment through money order or gift cards
- Requests that you pay fees up-front prior to receiving services
- Advises you to make mortgage payments to any party other than your current loan services
- Tells you to cease making mortgage payments altogether
- Tells you that they are calling on behalf of the VA or other government agency
- Requests that you sign over the title to your property
- Gives you a guarantee that they will get you a loan modification, or that they can stop the foreclosure process
- Tries to pressure you into signing papers that you have not had the opportunity to read thoroughly or that you might not fully understand
- Any other requests or offers that seem unusual or illegitimate
- Do not provide personal information to any party that contacts you randomly
- When you are not certain about the legitimacy of a caller claiming to be linked to your lender, hang up and call your loan servicer directly at the number listed on your mortgage statement
These tips can help you avoid costly mistakes and issues that could harm your ownership of your property and existing loan agreement. The predatory companies that are targeting veterans try not only to take illicit payments for help with your initial application but are also targeting properties gained through VA housing benefits. Making sure that these companies are not given the opportunity to scam you can be difficult, as they are able to spoof phone numbers. Scammers are using increasingly complex methods to trick veterans and their spouses into falling for their tricks.
Report Scams to the VA Office of Inspector General
Should you not be sure about a contract, or think that someone you know has been victimized by VA benefits scams, the VA suggests that you contact the VA Office of Inspector General through the OIG Hotline. When a company is using predatory practices, you can also file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau as well as the Federal Trade Commission.
The VA provides the resource Veterans Targeted in Benefits Scams for you to consider for support if you think that you may have been victimized. It is advised that if you receive messages from a company claiming to be with “veterans services” you should exercise caution. Fraudulent calls have been reported not only by veterans, but also military spouses from companies claiming to be affiliated with the VA, or the home loan servicer of the VA.
Scammers Claim to Be “Veterans Services” or with the VA Home Loan Servicer
You may receive calls from numbers that appear to be verified on your phone, but it is possible for scammers to use caller ID spoofing so that they look legitimate. A recent Veterans Affairs VAntage Point article reported that scammers are not only targeting the VA home loans of veterans, but their properties themselves. The government has not stood by silently in relation to this issue, but has begun to take action.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is Acting Against Scammers
In reaction to the growing issues linked to VA benefits scams, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has taken action. They have undertaken a broad investigation of a number of mortgage companies that employed deceptive mailers and other advertisements related to VA-guaranteed mortgages. Over $4.4 million has been obtained in civil money penalties due to the broad sweep of these fraudulent companies by the CFPB.
The investigations undertaken by the CFPB are noted as reflecting a commitment to enforcing the law and to ensuring that the financial marketplace is fair. These measures are meant to protect consumers from deceptive practices, including veterans and their surviving spouses for whom VA-guaranteed mortgages are designed to provide benefits to.
Congressman Chris Pappas Introduced the GUARD VA Benefits Act
The GUARD VA Benefits Act has been hailed by veterans’ advocates as a solution to a long-term problem that had been negatively impacting veterans who depended on benefits for support. According to Joe Parsetich in a statement published by New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District, National Commander of the Disabled American Veterans, for many American veterans, “VA disability compensation can be the difference between making ends meet and more severe outcomes such as homelessness.”
During the process of applying for VA benefits, the risk of being taken advantage of by non-accredited, often poorly qualified intermediaries who charge excessive and at times illegal fees is very real for veterans. In response to this, Mr. Parsetich noted that “(I)t’s so vitally important that veterans are properly represented by accredited individuals and institutions when applying for VA benefits.” He goes on to note that the DAV, the Disabled American Veterans, applauds Representative Pappas for introducing the GUARD VA Benefits Act.
Discuss the GUARD Act and Your Claim with a VA Disability Lawyer
Keeping up with all the changes in laws and legislation that might apply to your VA disability benefits can be difficult. If you believe that the GUARD VA Benefits Act might apply to your qualifying service-connected disability or condition, reach out to a VA disability lawyer from our firm online or call, 1-888-878-9350 to learn if we can help.