How to Spot a Fake War Veteran

How to spot a fake "war veteran" or impostor.

Impostors:  They're not as cool as Tony Curtis or Leonardo Di Caprio in the movies - How to spot a impostor before you are hurt.

One of the definitions of fraud includes that of "impostor" - one who deceives others by posing as something which they are not.  In the movies, Tony Curtis played "The Great Impostor" in 1961, based on the real-life antics of Ferdinand Walter Demara, Jr. who successfully passed himself off as a marine, monk, warden and Canadian naval surgeon.  In "Catch Me if You Can," Leonardo Di Caprio portrays the story of Frank Abagnale, who also assumed identities and positions by posing as someone with authority.  While these stories are meant to be entertaining, they also show that anyone with a lot of self-confidence and a little knowledge about the weaknesses in any system can pass themselves off as "experts" in almost any field.

One of the hot areas for "impostors" recently is phony war veterans.  Most of these scammers never actually served in uniform, but because you can buy uniforms, accessories, and ribbons and medals on E-bay and at flea markets, there are more and more impostors appearing at fundraisers, public events, and even the lecture circuit.  Some "phony vets" DID actually serve, they just didn't achieve the glory or status that they claim to have been awarded.  Here are the ways to call out both types of impostors:

1) Real war vets rarely ever self-promote themselves or their financial interests.  Anyone who appears to be more interested in booking their time or an appearance fee should be able to produce documentation and certificates to show that the have been awarded the honors that they claim.  Remember: mere possession or display of a medal or ribbon alone is meaningless - all medals come with a citation made out to the awardee.  Real heroes will not take offense if you ask to see their citations/documentation - fakers will.

2) Citations/documents can be faked, so if the paperwork looks "too good" or the copies are so worn over that it's hard to read, ask for verification from the branch of the U.S. military that supposedly issued the award.  This step may take some time, but again, if the hero is legitimate, they'll actually welcome the verification process.  The fact that it is now a felony to pose as a military hero may encourage an impostor to seek an easier target.

3) Do the claimed actions/battles/awards make sense in time, substance, or geography?  Many military impostors claim to have participated in the biggest battles, the heaviest engagements, with the most elite units.  One impostor claimed to have served with the Marines in Antarctica, Viet Nam, and the Persian Gulf.  Another claimed to have been gravely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan but appeared to be completely recovered.   If the "special warrior" claims to have seen a lot of action, can they back that up with the names of those who served with them?  

4) Active duty and reserve personnel all carry military-issued Identification cards.  Even the retired ones.  If someone appears "in uniform" but isn't carrying their military ID card, they could be an impostor.  ID cards can be faked, but again, if you ask someone legitimate to verify their military status, they may be annoyed, but they'll be able to do it by calling the service branch they they represent.  Fakers (such as those portrayed by Curtis and Di Caprio) always rely on the "Don't you know who I am?" ruse.   Play dumb and call their bluff.

5) Impostors like to be the center of attention (briefly) and collect as many goods, services, and endorsements as possible before taking their leave. Like Will Smith's character in "Six Degrees of Separation" - many impostors rely on the good will and introductions made on their behalf by unwitting people who genuinely believe that they are dealing with a celebrity or war hero.  Before you introduce someone to a group as a veteran, take a few minutes to ask some of these questions to your "vet"

a. Where and when did you first enter military service?  Where and when did you last serve on active duty?

b. What was the nature of your discharge?  If not "honorable," why not?  If "general," why?  If "other than honorable" "bad conduct" or "Dishonorable" you probably don't need to keep asking questions.

c. Why are you telling your story? Remember, with impostors, it's all about them, never about those that they "served with" because, they didn't serve!   If the goal is to sell or promote something (including themselves), the likelihood that this is an impostor has just gone up. 

d. Can I contact your service branch to verify your military record?  Again, if they are the real deal, this question should not cause problems.

What do you do if you smoke out an impostor?  First, if you are contemplating any business deal or appearance, stop and fully disclose your findings to all those involved.  Impostors count on your embarrassment to keep from being exposed further.  If the impostor is found out only after the appearance or deal, you may have legal remedies available by contacting your local police or the local recruiting station who can put you in touch with military authorities who will investigate and prosecute. 

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Posted on Oct 27, 2009