Veterans: Watch out for ‘claim sharks’
Staff Writer | May 28, 2023 1:00 AM
COEUR d’ALENE — Recent legislation allowing increased access to disability compensation benefits has helped veterans and their survivors receive the health care and benefits they deserve.
At the same time, these new laws have presented opportunities for scammers to commit fraud against veterans.
The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins Act — known as the PACT Act — expands health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances.
The law, which went into effect last year, affects an estimated 5 million veterans who were exposed to toxins during the Vietnam, Gulf War and post-9/11 eras.
“Because of this, there are many out there who know money can be made on the back of disabled veterans,” said Idaho Veterans Services officer Scott Thorsness.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has warned of an increase in PACT Act-related email, phone and social media scams targeting veterans to access benefits or submit claims on their behalf.
PACT Act scammers may contact veterans and falsely claim to be a VA employee or say, for a fee, they can help veterans receive benefits.
Thorsness said he’s seen a surge of “claim sharks,” or unaccredited disability claims representatives who seek to take advantage of veterans.
Accredited claims representatives are subject to VA standards. They’ve also completed training that enables them to give qualified assistance when preparing claims for disabled veterans. Fees, if any, are limited.
Unaccredited claims representatives, however, are not subject to the same standards. Thorsness said, as such, they may use various methods to circumvent regulatory oversight.
These unaccredited claim sharks often charge veterans and their families exorbitant fees in exchange for help preparing claims.
Kootenai County Veterans Services Director Tom Freeman recalled helping a local veteran who had been charged roughly $30,000 by a claim organization.
“I call them claim sharks when they charge veterans a lot of money to do their claims, while people like me and (Scott Thorsness) will do their claims for free,” he said.
Freeman said some of these claim sharks are reputable organizations, but cost for services is over the top.
“Some are not accredited representatives that are doing claims for veterans," Freeman said. "The bottom line is, unless someone has a good reason why they need a lawyer, they shouldn’t be paying to have claims submitted.”
Scammers may invoke other legislation in order to target veterans, such as the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021. The law allows certain individuals to receive compensation for harm from exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987.
Veterans who served at Camp Lejeune don’t need a lawyer to apply for disability compensation and health care benefits.
Working with legitimate veteran service providers is key.
“Don’t believe everything you read or hear,” Thorsness said. “Simply because their brochures or websites are red, white and blue doesn’t mean they have your best interest at heart.”
Instead, veterans can confirm whether a representative or firm is accredited by using a tool on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website.
The tool is available at www.va.gov/ogc/apps/accreditation.
“If the person or firm is not on the list, don’t use them,” Thorsness said.
Veterans can also contact Kootenai County Veterans Services: 208-446-1090.