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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/4/2007 7:15:20 PM ET 2007-06-04T23:15:20

Military families make a tempting target for con artists, especially when a spouse is deployed overseas in a war zone.

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Last week, the American Red Cross issued a warning to all military families to be on guard against a new scam in which the caller claims to be from the Red Cross. That caller could be an identity thief, trying to snag a loved one’s personal information.

“Unfortunately there are some people out there who are doing this very cruel scam,” says Devorah Goldburg, a senior officer with the American Red Cross. “We know of one case and there are likely more.”

In that case, Goldburg tells me, a woman whose spouse is deployed overseas got a call from “a young-sounding woman with an American accent” who said she was with the Red Cross.

The caller said the woman’s husband was hurt in Iraq and was evacuated to a hospital in Germany. Treatment could not start, she claimed, until the paperwork was completed.

The caller then asked to verify the husband’s Social Security number and date of birth. That’s everything an ID thief would need to open credit cards or take out loans in her husband’s name.

Because her husband is deployed in the United Kingdom, not Iraq, the wife quickly realized this was a scam and did not provide that information. She contacted the Family Readiness Group about the incident.

Lying to a military family is a crime
When told about this scam, Blake Draheim, a soldier at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Wash. responded, "We’re out here serving our country. Why try to steal our identity? We're out here fighting for you.”

All of the services have programs in place to inform military families about the types of scams directed at them.

“It is a horrific thing to do,” says Shari Lawrence, Deputy Public Affairs Officer for Army Human Resources. “We take this very seriously.”

The Stop Terrorist and Military Hoaxes Act of 2004 makes it a criminal offense to give false or misleading information “about the death, injury, capture, or disappearance” of a member of the Armed Forces during a war or time of armed conflict.

It’s also a federal crime, punishable by up to five years in prison, for a person to falsely pretend to be a member or an agent for the Red Cross for the purposes of soliciting, collecting or receiving money or material.

How the system works
If someone calls saying a loved one in the military has been injured, it’s hard to think clearly, so it’s important to know the process.

If there’s a fatality or injury, you will hear from the Department of Defense, not the Red Cross.

In the case of a death, notification is always made in person – a visit by an officer and a chaplain. 

If a service member is wounded, contact is made through the commander or First Sergeant channels. Whenever possible, the injured service member will make the call personally.

Any other call is suspect and should be reported to your Family Readiness Group.

The bottom line
NEVER give out a Social Security number or date of birth to an unknown caller. In fact, you shouldn’t even confirm that your family member is deployed.

Remember; military doctors would never delay treating an injured soldier because they did not have identifying information, such as SSN or date of birth. That’s a sure sign the call is a scam.

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