New Office Aims to Strengthen Families Financially
By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 29, 2011 A government office dedicated to protecting service members and their families from financial predators and pitfalls officially opened for business this week.
As the military arm of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Office of Servicemember Affairs is intended to strengthen military families financially and to serve as an advocate on their behalf, explained Holly Petraeus, who was tapped to head up the new office in January.
“Military families have special challenges,” said Petraeus, wife of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus. “There are 50 different states with 50 different laws, and military personnel may not be aware of the protections in the state where they live.”
These challenges are compounded when frequent moves and deployments are added into the mix, she said.
The office will work to ensure service members and their families receive the financial protection and education they deserve through a threefold mission, Petraeus explained. First, it will ensure military personnel are given a quality financial education, she said, “so they’re wise to consumer issues and can avoid the pitfalls out there.”
The office also will monitor consumer complaints and the response to those complaints, she said, and work with other federal and state agencies to help resolve issues.
A close working relationship with the Defense and Justice departments already is paying off. Petraeus said she recently signed a statement of principles with the judge advocate general of each branch of service to open the lines of communication and to ensure every financially related complaint is addressed.
“We want to create a strong partnership,” she said. “Legal assistance lawyers at the installations hear about a lot of consumer issues, and some may be consumer financial issues dealing with the laws the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau enforces.”
The goal is to create a circle of communication, Petraeus noted, citing the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act as an example. The act, which is enforced by the Justice Department’s civil rights division, offers a wide range of financial protections to active duty and deploying service members in areas such as credit card debt and mortgage payments.
“If a JAG gets an SCRA complaint, we want to make sure the Justice Department is aware,” Petraeus said. “And if someone comes to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with an SCRA complaint, we can get it to the JAGs so they can deal with it and refer it, if needed, to the Justice Department.”
Above all, she added, “we want to make sure complaints don’t fall through the cracks.”
With this goal in mind, Petraeus said, she recently established an informal partnership with the Veterans Affairs Department to help in addressing mortgage issues. VA has asked the Office of Servicemember Affairs to refer service members and veterans who are having mortgage troubles, or who are facing foreclosure, to a VA home loan assistance program counselor.
“Even if it’s not a VA-guaranteed loan, the counselor may be aware of benefits and grants that will be helpful,” she said. “I’m excited we have somewhere to send them that knows the military issues and, hopefully, can help them.”
Petraeus said she hopes to build on these initial steps in the months ahead as her office continues its efforts to educate the military population and to stop financial predators in their tracks.
“My ultimate dream is that no service member signs a contract that they end up regretting for years or signing one that isn’t fair,” she said. “We can write rules and enforce at CFPB, and I’d love to see the real bad actors that go after service members -- break the law to harm them financially -- I’d like to see them enforced against.”
At the same time, “we’d like to educate the population so they don’t sign these contracts, so they’re too smart to get into contracts,” she said.
To report a financial issue or complaint, service members and their families can visit the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website at http://www.consumerfinance.gov.