COVINGTON -- Things aren't always what they seem, warns Tommy Clack, field manager and veterans service officer for the Georgia Department of Veterans Services for the east side of Atlanta.
Telephone solicitors may not be who they say they are and just because a guy with a pair of camouflage pants and a flag sets up a table outside a local retail store, he may not be a veteran.
Clack says scam artists are running rampant in an effort to circumvent government funding and charitable donations intended for veterans.
"It's an epidemic going on in Georgia and the country," he said. "All these billions of dollars the federal government is acknowledging they are putting into the veterans' arena, there are unscrupulous people out there who want to partake of that. They fake being a veteran, fake credentials, have fake offices and collect money from an unknowing public."
Clack said the reason is simple -- the word "veteran" evokes an emotional response.
"When you use the word 'veteran' in public, you're going to get a response," he said. "Americans want to take care of them."
Newton County resident Randy Upton said he was curious about a group he found soliciting money in front of one of the area Wal-Mart stores and struck up a conversation with them. He said the solicitors acknowledged they were not veterans, had never served, much less been wounded, in military service and were being paid to sit in front of the store, dressed in paramilitary outfits and collect funds.
Clack says emphatically citizens should not donate to any group without knowing if the money is actually going to be used for the stated purpose.
"I suggest before anybody gives them money, you find out about them by getting a financial sheet showing where their money goes and if they are putting most of it back into the community. What services are they providing. What veterans are they benefiting? Legitimate groups are going to take your name and address and mail you a financial statement. Those groups are required to do a monthly, quarterly, yearly statement to show where their money goes," he said.
He said the work of the Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Georgia Vietnam Veterans of America and Vietnam Veterans of America and the Order of the Purple Heart are legitimate charities and the money given to them does go to benefit veterans.
"All those are national groups with national headquarters. They are registered with the state of Georgia, they have credentials and we know where their money goes," he said.
Citizens should take note, however, of the exact names of these organizations because a favorite ploy of unscrupulous groups is to call themselves by names very similar to these in hopes that contributors won't notice.
As to telephone calls and mailings soliciting money, Clack again says use caution.
"I tell everybody, don't respond to phone calls. You don't know where that is going -- not just veterans, but anybody," he said. "A lot of phone solicitations, they're hiring people to make those phone calls and it is a very lucrative business."
He said with mailings, citizens can check those organizations out.
"In every state you can go to the Secretary of State's Office and find out if they are legitimately registered. Find out if they are a 501-(c)3 (non-profit, tax-exempt) organization, meaning they are doing this as volunteer work. If they're not, 501-(c)3, then they're using part of the money raised to pay salaries, per diems and a lot of other things," he said.
Clack said other disturbing scams are seminars telling about veterans benefits and offers to complete paperwork for veterans. While they may not be illegal, they are an unnecessary expense.
"It's another attempt to tap into billions of dollars in the veterans arena," he said. "In Georgia and in every state, you have Veterans Affairs offices with service officers who are trained, accredited and certified to help veterans, widows and family members do their paperwork properly."
Those services are offered free, and, in fact, that is what Clack's Conyers office and 48 others throughout the state do on a daily basis.
"What we do, we do at no charge. Therein lies a big difference between what I call the fraudulent side of this. Individuals go on the Internet or ask for a VA pamphlet, read what needs to be done and then they announce they have a seminar going on in our local assisting living ... or nursing homes. Then they charge $85 to $150 to come to that seminar. They pass out the paperwork and that's never complete," Clack said. "In one of the cases we have out here on our side of town, they will actually charge for the seminar, give the veteran the paperwork and tell them to bring it to my office to make sure it's correct. In reality, they could come to our office and never pay the charge."
Clack said one of the worst cases of this happens in Atlanta where a man charges $350 to fill out paper work.
"They have to file the claim themselves and then he gets 25 percent of the first retroactive check."
Clack said often these people will tell folks they can "guarantee" if they pay for their seminar they can get $2,400 to $2,900 in veterans' income. He said that is completely false.
"I can't guarantee anything and I'm in that arena," he said. "Every veteran is a unique case."
He acknowledged that applying and collecting veterans benefits is often a time-consuming and tedious process, but having someone fill out the paperwork does not speed anything up. In fact, it often slows the process down because it is done incorrectly.
Clack said he is eager to let people know they do not have to incur these extra charges.
He invites citizens to call his Veterans Services office at 770-388-5075 or the headquarters at 404-656-2300 to check out organizations before making charitable donations or spending money for so-called veterans services. For those who are looking for ways to help veterans, Clack invited them to call, as well.
Clack's office serves east Atlanta, extending from I-285 in DeKalb County to Madison, up to Walton and Barrow counties, and down south to Henry County. It is located at 983 Taylor St., in the J.P. Carr Administration building, off West Avenue in Conyers.
"Anybody who puts the uniform on, earns certain benefits ... but you don't get them unless you ask for them in writing. That's what we do," he explained. "We maximize the language, the direction you want to go in, what is real, what is not, what is achievable, what's not achievable ... by doing that we end up maximizing what each veteran is entitled to."
Clack, who has worked for Veterans Services for 40 years, said the Veterans Administration and the Veterans Services offices are different.
"The VA doesn't like to hear this, but I am a firm believer ... the VA is in the business of finding a way to say no and minimize. We're in the business of being able to find a way to say yes and maximize," he said.