Monday, 15 July 2024

New legislation aims to protect veterans against claim sharks, financial exploitation

California Attorney General Rob Bonta and Sen. Caroline Menjivar (D-San Fernando Valley) have introduced Senate Bill 1124 (SB 1124), which they said is essential legislation seeking to protect veterans from claim sharks.

California veterans who need assistance with filing an initial claim for benefits can receive assistance at no charge from their county veteran service office or from another U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs accredited representative.

The VA also accredits attorneys and claims agents who can represent veterans before the VA and assist with benefit claims.

VA-accredited agents have to pass a certification exam that tests their knowledge, have to pass a background check, and complete ongoing training.

The fees that VA-accredited attorneys and agents can charge are capped by law, and they are subject to discipline — including revocation of their accreditation — if they don’t represent their clients competently and in accordance with the law.

In contrast, claims sharks are individuals and organizations that are not accredited, but still charge veterans for help with their benefits claims.

While some unaccredited individuals and organizations are well-intentioned, many charge exorbitant fees for subpar or worthless services, and operate outside of the VA accreditation system and the oversight and consumer protections that it provides to veterans.

This bill, sponsored by Attorney General Bonta and authored by Senator Menjivar, would prohibit claim sharking, make it a crime for claim sharks to obtain unauthorized access to the VA claims system using a veterans’ login information, and prohibit the charging of fees that exceed what a VA-accredited attorney or claims agent can legally charge to represent a veteran with a benefits claim.

“Claim sharks pose a risk to veterans who need help with their benefits claims,” said Attorney General Rob Bonta. “With the introduction of SB 1124, we are making it clear: if you want to charge veterans for help with their benefits claims you need to follow the rules and become a VA-accredited representative. California will vigorously protect those who have sacrificed so much to protect us.”

“Veterans bravely serve and oftentimes sacrifice their wellbeing for our country. Those living with the consequences of their selfless service deserve a smooth process in accessing the benefits they have earned. However, that process can be daunting and vulnerable,” said Senator Caroline Menjivar. “Therefore, we must ensure we have accredited advocates working on their case to ensure oversight and the proper dispersal of funds. Let’s protect the personal information, financial interests, and health of the veterans who have sacrificed to protect us.”

Specifically, SB 1124 would:

• Prohibit any person from being paid for work related to the preparation, presentation, or prosecution of any claim for federal veterans benefits unless they are accredited by the VA as an attorney or claims agent.
• Make it a crime for claim sharks to access VA computer systems using a veteran’s login information.
• Make it illegal for any person to charge a fee for assistance with a veteran’s benefits claim that exceeds the fee that could be lawfully charged by a VA-accredited attorney or claims agent for those services.

SB 1124 is part of Attorney General Bonta’s larger effort to protect veterans from exploitation:

In September 2023, Attorney General Bonta announced the sentencing of Don Azul for defrauding the relatives of veterans as part of a fraudulent veterans educational benefits scheme.

In August 2023, Attorney General Bonta joined a bipartisan coalition of 44 attorneys general in a letter to Congress expressing his support for federal legislation to protect veterans from financial exploitation.

In September 2022, SB 1311, a bill Attorney General Bonta sponsored to protect the rights of California service members and veterans, was signed into law. In November 2021, Attorney General Bonta issued a consumer alert warning veterans and their families to be aware of targeted scams and fraud.

And Attorney General Bonta is continuing to pursue a lawsuit against the Neptune Society for, among other things, failing to provide legally-required disclosures on mailers which advertised seminars that purported to provide information concerning veterans benefits.

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