Cybercriminals Targeting Military Families
with Ursula Palmer and Deborah A. Bradbard, Ph.D.
Recent studies show that America’s veterans, servicemembers, and their families are disproportionately targeted for online crimes that can have a devastating impact on their personal and financial wellbeing.
Ursula Palmer of the Cybercrime Support Network and Deborah A. Bradbard, Ph.D., of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, join host Tetiana Anderson to share how to recognize, report, and recover from cybercrimes.
October 29, 2021
Anderson: Cybercrime attacks escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic as many Americans relied on the Internet to work from home and access services they normally got offline. And while anyone can fall victim to cybercrime, some communities, including military families, are more vulnerable than others. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Recent studies show that America's veterans, service members, and their families are disproportionately targeted for online crimes that can have a devastating impact on their personal and financial well-being and on our national security. In the past four years, veteran and military communities have lost a staggering $820 million. And when they're scammed, they often lose more than civilians. Joining me to talk about all of this is Ursula Palmer, executive director of the military and veterans programs with the Cybercrime Support Network, and Dr. Deborah Bradbard, senior research associate at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. Thanks so much to both of you for joining us.
Palmer: Thank you so much for having us.
Bradbard: Thank you so much for having us.
Anderson: And, Ursula, I actually want to start with you. What is it about the way military families live their lives that make them such vulnerable targets to cybercriminals?
Palmer: Well, unlike other sections of the population, the military and veteran community is targeted twice, in two different ways -- either directly or there are stories or likeness are used to scam others. So, for the first one, scammers know the challenges active-duty military and their families face with constant moves and deployment. They know veterans and retirees, we see benefits. They are also aware that survivors many times receive lump sums of money after their loved one passes away. The second way is the military and veteran community is affected when cybercriminals use their stories, their pictures to scam other people. And here I can share with you something that happened directly to me. My husband was killed in Afghanistan, and I created a website that ended up being a memorial website. On the year after his passing, four different women contacted me, asking me if the person in those pictures was truly a soldier who had died, because they had been in contact with someone, they were romantically involved, and they had already sent thousands and thousands of dollars.
Anderson: That is incredible. Thank you for sharing that story. And it makes me think about these large sets of data that have been taken from veterans before. I mean, it happened in 2021. 200,000 patients had their health records exposed at the V.A. It happened in 2020. 46,000 vets had their personal information made public. Ursula, how concerned are you that cases like that just embolden criminals to say, "You know what? We're going to target individuals," just the way they targeted your husband?
Palmer: Oh, absolutely. I mean, for the longest time, our data has been compromised. It hasn't been only those two times. And the problem is, when we are targeted individually, especially active-duty service members, their careers -- their military careers -- can be completely devastated. And when we're talking about so many people targeted and so many people affected, well, we are not just talking about one person or two people. It's the readiness of the armed forces that is being affected, and with that, our national security.
Anderson: And you know, that readiness has to do a lot with the sort of research that's going on to inform the practice that we're talking about. And, Debbie, you and the research team at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University collect and interpret data that's used to develop solutions for the military community. Share some examples that really show the impact of that work.
Bradbard: Yeah, thank you. Thank you for bringing that up, Tetiana. A couple of ways we use research. One is, after military service members transition, we know that they have a very difficult time navigating all the resources that are available to them. There are over 40,000 organizations that serve military families and veterans, and so they have to navigate through all of those after they transition. And so knowing that from the data, we were able to develop a program called AmericaServes, which we have delivered all across the United States in different communities, and it helps bring community-based resources together so that when that veteran or that service member or family member goes to search for a resource, they go to one person and then they get dispersed into those resources out in the community -- the ones that they need the most. The other area where I think about where our research has been really useful is in veteran unemployment and military spouse unemployment. We knew that those numbers were very high at the beginning of the decade. And as we looked at those numbers, we were able to reach out to employers and help them learn more about the military and veteran community and how they could hire those folks in their companies. And as a result, we've seen those unemployment rates really go down for veterans. We're still working on the rates for military spouses, unfortunately.
Anderson: So, that research is a huge component of what's going on here. So is the education aspect. And, Ursula, one of the goals is to educate military and the veteran community on how to recognize cybercrime. So, what are some of the tricks that criminals are using that folks need to be aware of? And what can we do to help keep our veterans and service members safe?
Palmer: Well, cybercriminals are going to try to rush you, so be suspicious of any sensational, upsetting, or threatening statements. Verify who is communicating with you and then ignore any commands or requests for immediate action. Just remember, the goal of the scammer is to get you to react immediately, without thinking. So be wary of commands that pressure you to do anything. And stop all contact with the individual. Any e-mails and tags that you know are fake, delete them to avoid clicking on a link by mistake. However, do not delete those messages that come from someone who's extorting you or harassing you, because that information can be very important, and you may need to provide it to authorities. Then, if you took some steps after you were first contacted, and you provided personal identifiable information -- like birthday, mother's maiden name, model and make of your first car -- go ahead and change your password, change your security questions, add two-factor authentication to your online accounts. Block the profiles of those users that are harassing you or contacting you. If you provide a payment, contact your bank or financial institution. I mean, and cybercrime can have a devastating impact on the emotional well-being. So reach out to a friend, a family member, a counselor who can help you with emotional difficulties. And the one other important thing is, always report to the FBI. And visit fightcybercrime.org/military, where you will find a lot of other tips and information on how to recognize, report, and recover from cybercrime.
Anderson: Ursula Palmer of the Cybercrime Support Network and Dr. Deborah Bradbard of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, thanks so much to both of you for being here.
Palmer: Thank you, Tetiana.
Bradbard: Thank you for having us.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.