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Joint News Conference On The Establishment Of Military Sentinel

Presenters: Charles S. Abell, ASD (Force Management Policy)
September 24, 2002

Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2002 - 11:14 a.m. EDT

(Also participating was Timothy J. Muris, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.)

Lt Col. James Cassella (DoD Press Office): Ladies and gentlemen, good morning and welcome. Thank you for joining us today as we launch the Military Sentinel program, an exciting initiative from the Federal Trade Commission to protect consumers in our military community.

Joining us today are Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Abell and Federal Trade Commission Chairman Timothy J. Muris. Mr. Abell was sworn in as the assistant secretary of Defense for Force Management Policy on May 8, 2001. A presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate, he is responsible for all policies, plans and programs for military and civilian personnel in the Department of Defense. Prior to assuming his role as assistant secretary of Defense, Mr. Abell served as a professional staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee after completing a 26-year career in the Army in 1993.

Ladies and gentlemen, Secretary Abell.

Abell: Thank you, Jim. It's my pleasure today to bring you a good news story -- the activation of the Military Sentinel website. We look forward to this. Military Sentinel will significantly improve the financial quality of life for our military personnel, our DOD civilians and their families. It results from the hard work of two agencies, the Department of Defense and the Federal Trade Commission. And therefore, DOD and FTC are partnering in this press conference, as well as on the site itself.

With us here today, as Colonel Cassella said, is Chairman Timothy J. Muris of the FTC. The FTC leads the fight in the war on consumer fraud, and Chairman Muris is a veteran of that war. He's served in the FTC for over 10 years before entering private practice and teaching antitrust law. President Bush appointed him to his current post as FTC chairman in June of 2001. In addition to his duties as FTC chairman, Mr. Muris serves as a member of the American Bar Association and has written widely on antitrust, consumer protection, regulatory and budget issues.

Chairman Muris will speak to you about the website and its operation in a few minutes. Before he does, I want to say a few words about what the Military Sentinel website means to the Department of Defense.

Military personnel, DOD civilians and their families face unique challenges every day trying to deal with consumer protection issues, issues such as non-standard work schedules, lengthy absences from home, frequent relocations, the availability of personal identification information as a matter of public record, and the assignments that take them to remote locations far from the -- far removed from the normal consumer protection channels that we come to accept here in the United States.

Military Sentinel will help us address these challenges by creating a database on which scam artists and others who seek to defraud individuals in the military community will be identified. The database will assist federal, state and local officials in targeting law enforcement actions and consumer-education initiatives. And specifically, it will allow our installation commanders to make informed decisions when granting businesses access to their installation. It will provide DOD with the means to gauge consumer-protection issues facing the military community, and Military Sentinel will promote financial literacy and education through the links to information on consumer-protection issues available on the site. Finally, Military Sentinel will show how much interagency partnership can enhance the quality of life for our military personnel, our DOD civilians and their families.

Now would you please welcome the department's partner in this initiative, FTC chairman Timothy Muris.

Muris: Thank you very much, Secretary Abell.

I'm certainly delighted to be here with you today to announce Military Sentinel. It's an extraordinary partnership that will help those who protect our country.

When it comes to the problems that are associated with telemarketing scams, identity theft, sweet-sounding but suspicious sweepstakes awards and get-rich-quick schemes, members of the military, their families and civilian DOD employees face the same problems as other consumers. Members of the military and DOD civilians also have unique challenges: their extended work schedules; they're away from home for long periods; they relocate often and unexpectedly; and they may not have ready access to consumer- protection channels or consumer information. Military Sentinel also takes steps to educate and protect our service members and allows them greater peace of mind wherever they may be.

Military Sentinel has three essential features. First, it offers members of the military and their families a way to file complaints and be counted. Second, it gives the Department of Defense and law enforcement officers the ability to spot the most prevalent and troublesome problems branch by branch, installation by installation. In that way, frauds can be identified, shut down and, ultimately, prevented. And finally, Military Sentinel provides a source for military consumers and their families to access important and practical educational materials. Let me share a few details.

I mentioned that Military Sentinel provides a central place where service members and their dependents can file complaints. Starting today, those in the uniformed services, DOD civilian employees and their families can click on consumer.gov/military to enter their complaints. These complaints will go directly into the FTC's Consumer Sentinel, an identity-theft-data clearing-house system. The Consumer Sentinel system is the nation's only centralized consumer complaint database. The FTC gets these complaints from consumers as well as from a long list of data contributors, including the National Fraud Information Center, the FBI's Internet Fraud Complaint Center, the Postal Inspection Service, and local better business bureaus. Consumer Sentinel makes the fraud complaints accessible to hundreds of enforcement agencies in the United States, Canada and Australia. Using the data base, thousands of law enforcement officers are identifying bad actors committing fraud, coordinating actions to stop them, and, in time, getting money back to the victims. Getting complaints from military consumers into the Sentinel database, whether the complaints are about fraud or identity- theft, enhances our ability to protect all consumers.

The Consumer Sentinel Law Enforcement database has a terrific track record, and we're honored to expand its capabilities to the military. Military Sentinel will also provide Department of Defense personnel with secure access to the complaints that service members enter to understand better what scams are targeting military personnel. With such vital information we can alert and educate military consumers so they do not become victims of scams and rip-offs.

We believe that consumer education works. Through Military Sentinel members of the armed services will have immediate access to our full range of education and information. These include practical, plain-language tips on understanding credit and lending issues, avoiding work-at-home and advance fee loan scams, and recognizing fraudulent offers, whether they come through the mail, the telephone, or the Internet. As we continue to rely on the men and women of the armed forces to protect our liberties, I am proud that the FTC is doing all we can to ensure that they receive the protection they need from unscrupulous businesses and scam artists. Once again I'd like to thank Secretary Abell and each of the legal assistance service representatives who worked so hard to make this project a reality. Military Sentinel is an exciting partnership, and we look forward to working together.

Thank you.

Abell: Questions and answers, we now open it up.

Muris: We want -- anybody have any questions? Yes.

Q: Is the information on this Military Sentinel specifically targeted toward military, or is it simply a way for military people to have access to the general consumer protection information?

Muris: Well, that -- that's -- the information function is a general way to have access. The complaint function, though, when you -- when you click onto this, you will then click to your particular service. It will be a way for us and for members of the military and local law enforcement officials to look at scams and complaints, particularly from -- specifically identified as people from the military. So it has a couple of different functions. And we think that there are scam artists who do aim their scams at the military.

Q: The database, the information, will both go into the general database, but you'll also be able to maintain data specifically on military complaints?

Muris: Yes, yes. And again, we think that will be very helpful. It will allow people at individual military installations to see what's happening at their installation, if anything. It will allow people in a particular branch of the military to do that, it will us to do that. We have hundreds of law-enforcement partners across the country, and it will allow them to do that. I mean, for example, I grew up in San Diego. And there's still a lot of military there; there was a lot of military in my youth. And local law-enforcement officials there, as well as the people in the military there, will be able to -- if they're partners, will be able to access this database.

Q: So -- well, I just want to make sure I understand. So if I'm a service member in San Diego or in Norfolk and I'm looking to buy a used car, for example, and I'm wondering if this dealer has a decent record, can I go to your database, and will I find that there have been X number of complaints against Joe Blow Auto Sales? Or will I be able to get that kind of information?

Muris: Well, one of the -- you'll certainly be able to get information about what to look for in terms of buying used cars. One of the things also on our database is information about local better business bureaus, and the local better business bureaus often have that sort of information. So what we will do, people will get education, including about other people to contact.

Q: But you won't -- in other words, I wouldn't be able to get that information direct from you. You're like a portal to where I would want to go to get that information?

Muris: Yes. Yes. And, you know, we'll have a lot of information about a lot of particular types of scams. But when it comes to information about specific local businesses, the better business bureaus often have that information.

Q: And how about a service member who wants to file a complaint but it's really not an FTC matter, it's a matter for the local or the state consumer protection; will you forward that complaint or do you simply let that service member know here's who you should write to with your complaint?

Muris: We will certainly have information, depending on what the complaint is, about how to contact other people. But we have something unique, which is this centralized database, and law-enforcement partners at the state level, at the local level, other federal agencies; indeed, we have lots of partners from outside the United States. They can access that data, and they often do. And, of course, we actively look at the data; we're looking for patterns, we're looking for targets, and we will many times inform local officials of specific problems. We may work with them in solving the problem. You know, we may trust them to solve it -- to solve it themselves. This is a system that's fairly new, but it's used now nationwide by literally thousands of law-enforcement officials. And in fact, we have helped train many people all over the country in fighting consumer crime.


Q: Is there any certain point of contact at military installations or at DOD for monitoring this? Legal assistance folks? Just law-enforcement folks? Is there somebody that a service member could go to at their installations and say, "Can you check on this business for me?"

Abell: Yes. The legal assistance folks at the installation are the proper first place for the military member or the family member or the DOD civilian to go for that. This database will provide them an opportunity to look, but it also, from a DOD perspective, helps the installation commander to know, when businesses approach seeking access to the base or businesses, or members report things that they've been approached by a business in that area, helps them to understand about access and about how to advise the population at large at his or her installation. So, yes, the legal assistance is where we would like them to go first. The family support centers also have places that will accept that and then guide them to the proper authorities.

Q: So what's being done to educate these on-base agencies out there that these resources are available?

Abell: Well, today is the first step in announcing this, and there will be an educational program that will go out and familiarize at the installation level with what the capabilities of this website are.

Muris: And one of the things we do is we often go to JAG training centers -- I know there's one in Charlottesville -- and, you know, we talk about what we do. And now we'll be able to talk also about Military Sentinel.

Any other questions?

Q: This was about to be launched two years ago. What happened?

Muris: Well, several things happened. There was a change in administration, where a lot of the people who, you know, were relevant were not confirmed yet. September 11th, quite frankly, had an impact on us. One of the impacts it had on us is, one of the people working on it got recalled to active duty service. So there were a variety of things that happened. But we're happy that we're launching it now and we think -- you know, we think it's a very important effort and we appreciate, you know, your being here to help educate the people in the service.

Q: Is there an estimate as to the scope of this problem? I mean, are we -- is fraud on military members a hundred-million-dollar a year problem, is it a billion-dollar a year problem? Does anybody know? Has anybody studied that?

Abell: I don't have a figure like that. We are, of course, always looking to provide our military members, their families, the best information that we can. I think part of the military culture is a sense of security when they're inside their installation, and that if a business or an industry has access to that installation, there's a certain assumption on the part of the military member that we've done our due diligence, and this will assist us in that as well.

Muris: Of course this is one of the beauties of Military Sentinel, is it will now be able to track these problems much more closely.

Thank you very much.


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