The fight against the financial exploitation of America's service members got a huge boost last week with the unveiling of a new consumer protection arm for military families.
The Office of Servicemember Affairs aims to increase financial education for military members and better monitor and respond to problems and complaints. Part of the recently created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, this new military-focused agency will be headed by Holly Petraeus, wife of Gen. David Petraeus, current commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
While it's still taking shape, this new advocacy and awareness entity could significantly curb the unscrupulous lending practices and financial chicanery that impact scores of military families nationwide.
Studies have shown military members are more likely to be financially overburdened than civilians. That leaves them vulnerable to sales pitches and advances from companies and individuals bent on taking advantage.
"Those who serve in the military should be able to focus on their jobs and their families without having to worry about getting trapped by abusive financial practices," Elizabeth Warren, special advisor to the Treasury secretary for the CFPB, wrote last week on The White House blog. "America's national security depends on that basic premise."
Recent online surveys found that nearly 25 percent of enlisted personnel or junior NCOs had used payday loans, auto title loans or other high-cost borrowing practices in the last five years. More than half of respondents reported only making the minimum payment on credit cards, and nearly a third said they had made a late payment in the previous year.
About 15 percent of those surveyed had both a mortgage and a credit card balance of at least $10,000.
These issues are far from merely financial concerns. Money problems at home can weigh heavily on military members serving abroad and even affect mission readiness.
Army Secretary John McHugh wrote about this in May in response to unscrupulous auto lenders targeting military members. Defense Department surveys consistently rank finances among the leading causes of stress for most military families.
"Soldiers who are distracted by financial issues at home are not fully focused on fighting the enemy," McHugh's letter read in part.
Service members sacrifice a great deal to keep America safe. They and their families should no longer have to battle craven financial predators at home.
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