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Unaccredited VA Representatives: How to Spot Them & What to Do

Unaccredited VA Representatives: How to Spot Them & What to Do

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Brad Hennings: Hello.  Thanks for tuning in to Veterans Legal Lowdown.  My name is Brad Hennings, and I’m joined by Christine Clemens.  We’re with Chisholm Chisholm and Kilpatrick.  And we’re here today to talk a little bit about VA unaccredited representatives.  We’re going to explain how to spot these unaccredited VA representatives and what to do, as well as offer some tips on choosing the right rep for you.  So, what does it mean to be accredited by the VA, by Veterans Affairs?

So, VA-accredited attorneys or representatives, also sometimes known as agents or claims agents, are individuals recognized by VA as legally authorized and capable of assisting claimants in pursuit of benefits before the Department of Veterans Affairs.  So, this accreditation program exists to ensure that veterans and family members receive adequate informed representation throughout the VA benefits claims and appeals process.  So, VA-accredited representatives can include attorneys, accredited claims agents, Veteran Service Organizations, such as DAV, or state or county government entities — you’ll see this with the national county veterans service officers or some of the state veterans organizations.

So, Christine, let’s talk a little bit about what you want to avoid when you’re choosing a representative.

Christine Clemens:  Thanks, Brad.  Yeah, there are several things that veterans should be on the lookout for when seeking a representative to help with their VA disability claim or appeal.  Firstly, don’t work with unaccredited representatives.  The law requires an individual who’s preparing, presenting, or prosecuting a claim for benefits, that they be accredited by VA.  This gets back to what you were talking about, Brad, that adequate informed representation.  This is to ensure that the people who were assisting veterans through the process, who are giving them information, who are consulting with them and advising them, know what they’re doing.

You can search the VA’s Office of the General Counsel database, we call them the OGC, to find out if the person who wants to help you is accredited.  That can be found on the VA’s website in the OGC section, and we’ll provide that information in the comments.  Be aware of organizations that do not provide the names of individuals who can be checked in this database.  All accredited advocates, whether they’re VSOs, attorneys, or agents, appear in this database.

Brad: So, you also want to understand when and how much you can be charged for these kinds of services.  Congress has determined who can charge veterans, when advocates can enter into fee agreements with claimants, and how much they can be charged.  This is all legislated.

So, specifically, advocates cannot charge to file an initial claim, nor can they charge a fee on future benefits payments.  So, what advocates are allowed to charge on, typically, are retroactive payments or lump sum payments that a veteran can earn but never on a veteran’s going forward benefits.  So, if you receive $500 a month from VA benefits that you win, an advocate cannot charge for the next 6 months once you’ve won.  They can only charge — if it took a year to file your claim and win — they can only charge on what has been accumulated over that year.

So, many unaccredited representatives state they do not charge for filing a claim and are merely consulting or coaching, but they require veterans to sign contracts that will make them pay unregulated sums out of future benefits.  Some of them require banking information.  They ask you, as a veteran or as a claimant, to give your bank information to them, and many ask for login information to VA websites.  This is not good.  VA regulations assert that fees taken from retroactive benefits, which are 20 percent or less, are presumed reasonable while fees that exceed 33.33 percent are presumed to be unreasonable.

So, what this means is, typically, you can be charged anywhere from 20 to 33.33 percent on retroactive benefits.  There are representatives that will represent you for no money as well.  So, anywhere from 0 to 33.33 percent is within the bounds of the law, but only on retroactive benefits.  Christine?

Christine: Yeah.  And, Brad, you touched on this a little bit but I think it’s also important that people avoid representatives that ask for access to personal information and I want to really highlight that.  Never provide your personal login information for eBenefits, any other VA system, or your bank account.  There are some groups out there that will do this and they will access a veteran’s file and when the veteran doesn’t want to work with them any longer, they’re still accessing the veteran’s file because they have that login information.  It’s a real security issue for veterans and it makes it difficult to get out of those business relationships that are not helping the veteran.

So, it’s important to know that accredited individuals will have access to the information they need to assist you once you have your signed power of attorney and they should not ask for log information.  Frankly, they won’t need it.  They will have access to the VA system to appropriately represent you.  Unaccredited individuals, by contrast, can’t get that same access that accredited individuals can.  And so, they’ll commonly ask veterans to provide them with access to VA systems, or really, to the same system that the veteran can access, which doesn’t have the same kind of information that someone representing you really needs to have, to be knowledgeable about how to best assist you throughout the life of the case.

These unaccredited individuals will use this information, additionally, to determine when VA has granted a claim because VA does not recognize them as a representative entitled to receive the information directly.  And a lot of them will use that information to then follow up and request payment for the work that they have done.

So, if you find that you’ve encountered an unaccredited representative or you find that the person who you’ve been working with is an unaccredited representative, you can report them.  There are multiple ways to file complaints against organizations or unaccredited individuals if you believe that you, a veteran, or if you believe a claimant has been charged outside of the statutory scheme.

You could start by contacting any of the following organizations or offices, including the VA’s Office of the General Counsel, the OGC, as I mentioned earlier.  VA states that its accreditation complaint program is only intended to discipline accredited individuals who fail to meet VA’s standards of conduct.  They do not exercise jurisdiction over unaccredited individuals who charge veterans outside the statutory scheme, but you can inform VA of your concerns by emailing the OGC accreditation mailbox, and that is ogcaccreditationmailbox@va.gov.  That information is also on VA’s website on that OGC page.

You can also contact VA’s Office of the Inspector General, the OIG.  The Office of the Inspector General provides independent oversight over the operations of the Department of Veterans Affairs.  So, if you report unlawful activity to VA OGC and receive no response or an unfavorable response, consider reporting the matter to OIG. They can be reached by telephone at 800-495-8244, or you can also find them online on VA’s website, and we will provide that information in the comments.  Brad?

Brad: Thanks, Kristine.  So, Christine describes some of the folks at the Department of Veterans Affairs you can contact, but as you can imagine, the Department of Veterans Affairs is not in the business of protecting consumers, per se.  They’re in the business of trying to assist veterans and claimants and their family members.  And so, another route you can go, and one that may be more effective, frankly, at times, is to talk to the Federal Trade Commission.  It’s the FTC.

One part of the Federal Trade Commission’s mission is to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive practices in the marketplace.  And we certainly maintain that a number of these unaccredited representatives are engaging in this kind of behavior.  So, you can file a complaint at https://reportfraud.ftc.gov.  Go there and that will give you an area to report the fraud.

You can also go to your own State’s Attorney General. So, in the state that you live in, the State Attorney General is the top attorney in the state and serves as the people’s lawyer for the state.  For example, in Louisiana, the Louisiana State Attorney General recently obtained a permanent injunction against a VA benefit consulting and management business operating without VA accreditation.  So, that’s a great place you can go as well within your own state.

Finally, you can go to your state Consumer Protection Agency.  Each state has a Consumer Protection Agency to protect against fraudulent business practices, and you can find your respective state agency at www.usa.gov/state-consumer.  We’ll put all of these different URLs, all these different web addresses, in the comments so you can find people to report to.

So, in closing, do you have anything else to add on this topic, Christine?

So, Christine is muted at the moment.  We will give her a second to unmute.

Christine: Thank you, Brad.  We do have a number of videos that we’ve done on this issue on our website.  We have some shorter ones and some longer ones.  And so, if anyone has any questions, they’re wondering what to look for, we do have more information on our website.  I think we’ve also provided those resources.  So, I think that’s really helpful.  But also just trust your instincts.  If something feels like it’s a little bit off, ask questions.  Check to make sure the person you’re working with is accredited.

Brad: I echo everything that Christine has said.  Really, it’s crucial to make sure your representative is accredited, whether it’s an attorney, or a veteran service organization, or an agent.  It’s a seal of some approval that everyone’s playing by the rules, by VA’s rules.  And it’s ultimately a quality check to make sure that they are informed and responsive to their clients, which are you, veterans, and other claimants, seeking to obtain benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Additionally, CCK, Chisholm Chisholm and Kilpatrick, that’s us, we have an experienced team of accredited representatives and we may be able to assist you with your appeal.  So, please feel free to contact us to learn more.  We’ll be happy to evaluate your case, but most importantly, whoever you go with, get somebody that’s accredited.

So, Christine, thank you for being part of this.  I’m Brad Hennings. This is Christine Clemens.  Thanks for joining us at CCK, Chisholm Chisholm and Kilpatrick.  Please see us on the web, or on Instagram, Twitter.  We’re all over social media with various veterans benefits.  Thanks.