August 05, 2015 Dialogue

Book Review: Ripped Off! A Servicemember's Guide to Common Scams, Frauds, and Bad Deals

By Andrew Butler

If you currently lead or aspire to lead young Marines, soldiers or other military personnel, consider adding an excellent new book entitled Ripped Off! A Servicemember's Guide to Common Scams, Frauds, and Bad Deals by Michael S. Archer to your library and reading list. While the title suggests that it is geared only for the average G.I., the book deserves a much broader audience because it gives unit commanders, and attorneys who advise them, hundreds of practical ways to protect servicemembers (SMs)—particularly young ones—from the predatory practices of common criminals and bad faith salesmen who directly target the military community. It also offers practical guidance on sources of help and strategies to assist those who already have been “ripped off.”

Drawing from more than thirty years of experience as a judge advocate and civilian attorney with the Marine Corps, Archer—who is the Director of Legal Assistance for Marine Corps Installations East, based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina—has much to say and he says it well. He explains how junior military personnel are often easy marks. Most are recent high school graduates who, for the first time, find themselves with a regular paycheck and disposable income. For much of their first year in the military, they endure a rigorous training program: first at boot camp and later at various “specialty” schools or operational units, where they learn under the watchful eyes of junior officers and senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Their rigors only increase once they are assigned to units underway or overseas.

Recruits endure lots of hardship in a strictly regimented environment, but not all the time. There are occasional bursts of freedom, such as at the conclusion of boot camp or prior to a deployment, during which these fledgling war fighters have time and money on their hands. Archer argues that it is this combination of consumer inexperience, limited free time, and disposable income that leads many personnel to develop a “gotta-have-it-now-or never” attitude—making them prime targets for fraudsters, scammers, and hustlers.

Archer emphasizes that education is the key to tackling the consumer predator problem. He argues persuasively that as awareness spreads, the incidence of personnel succumbing to frauds and scams declines. Rather than experience serving as the best teacher, Archer believes that the best teachers are often those in the chain of command. To teach, they must first learn, and Ripped Off! is a great place to start.

Topics covered in Ripped Off! include payday and other high interest loans, life insurance, vehicle purchases, auto repair, consumer credit, debt collection, educational scams, landlord-tenant issues— and much more. Archer also highlights military-friendly laws, such as the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, and consumer-friendly agencies, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the local state attorney general, which can often boost a SM’s chance of success when fighting back. Another noteworthy benefit Ripped Off! delivers to the reader is the inclusion of more than 250 citations to various laws, websites, DoD policies, and media reports—including one on a life insurance scam that impacted bereaved families who had lost loved ones in combat.

Archer not only provides comprehensive guidance on ways to educate and how to fight back, but also explains how various problems can cripple a SM’s career and undermine military readiness. For example, he delves into the issue of excessive consumer debt— which is a big problem for many junior personnel. Archer puts this problem in perspective by explaining how it can lead to disciplinary action, revocation of security clearances, and worse. He paints a graphic picture of troops distracted by their financial woes and thereby losing focus in combat or when training for combat. This can place SMs—and their comrades-in-arms—in jeopardy. Clearly, much more is at stake than a low credit score.

Archer’s organizational scheme and comprehensive index are very user-friendly. For example, let’s say an NCO seeks to answer a soldier’s question about pay day loans. Such questions come up quite often, in part because pay day lenders proliferate around large military installations and often use misleading ads to entice military consumers into deceptively expensive loans. The NCO only needs to take a quick glance at the table of contents of Ripped Off! to find that Archer clearly articulates in Chapter 2 why payday loans are a BAD idea, explaining how advertised interest rates of 15% actually generate annual percentage rates in excess of 390%! 

And Archer doesn’t stop there. He suggests that SMs contemplating payday loans are likely to need help with other financial matters, and then provides a list of recommended actions at the end of the chapter. Archer uses the same approach in many of the book’s twenty chapters. For pay loan problems, his recommendations include consultation with a military legal assistance attorney, reporting misconduct to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, filing a complaint with the state attorney general’s office, and possibly declaring the lender off-limits to military personnel through a complaint to the Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board (AFDCB). Don’t know what the AFDCB is? Read the book and find out!

As a former Marine Officer who led young Marines in combat, I see Ripped Off! as an indispensible resource for those of us concerned with the financial security and well-being of military personnel. It was tough to see Marines under my command victimized by many of the scams, frauds, and bad deals that Archer highlights. Thankfully, he has now given us a powerful weapon to use in the fight against consumer predators who prey upon the young men and women who willingly risk their lives for our nation in its time of greatest need. 

Ripped Off! can be purchased at the ABA Web Store.

Andrew Butler

Law Student

Andrew Butler is a second year law student attending the University of Montana School of Law, who had the opportunity to serve as a legal intern with the United States Coast Guard, Ninth Coast Guard District, Cleveland, OH. In his prior experience he served for seven years on active duty as Marine officer, including a tour in Helmand Provence, Afghanistan. Andrew hopes to return to active military service as an attorney to continue his service in support of others.