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Military Personnel Linked to Credit Card Fraud

July 28, 2001|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Armed with 1.8 million credit cards, Pentagon employees went on a $9-billion shopping spree last year that congressional investigators found was filled with fraud.

Military personnel did personal shopping at Wal-Mart and Home Depot, partied at Hooters and Bottoms Up nightclubs and charged personal items like DVD players, computers and pet supplies to their government cards, according to documents obtained by Associated Press.

Congress intends to make the materials public at a hearing Monday.

In the last two years alone, there have been more than 500 purchase fraud cases filed involving military credit cards, according to information gathered by the office of Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). One bank company has been forced to write off $59 million in fraudulent debts from military cards.

The rapid proliferation of credit cards to Pentagon employees "is like giving people keys to the federal treasury," Grassley said Friday.

"In the past, Pentagon employees needed a phony invoice to trigger a fraudulent government check, but that obstacle is gone," he said. "Credit cards provide a shortcut to the cash pile."

Reviews found the Pentagon has inadequate controls on the cards it issues for official purchases or travel and also is slow to respond, even in the face of fraud. The reviews were conducted by Grassley; Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Long Beach), chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on government efficiency; and the General Accounting Office.

Grassley said purchase credit cards, many with limits from $20,000 to $100,000, are being issued without credit checks on the employees receiving them, and purchases are not being checked for legitimacy.

"There are no controls, no responsibilities, and no accountability," he said.

The Pentagon and other federal agencies began issuing credit cards to employees in the 1990s to make purchases more efficient. In 2000, the cards were used to make 10 million purchases totaling $9 billion.

Defense officials say the cards have significantly sped up purchases and eliminated red tape, and the idea shouldn't be judged solely by instances of fraud.

"This administration, and specifically Secretary [Donald H.] Rumsfeld, has made fiscal responsibility a hallmark," Pentagon spokeswoman Susan Hansen said. "We will have representatives attending the hearing so we can hear the committee's concerns, answer their questions and make sure that any concerns are fully addressed."

Documents from the Bank of America, which handles Pentagon travel credit cards, detail the case of a Marine sergeant who ran up $20,000 in charges, then left the service--and the bill unpaid.

The Marine's credit card for travel, issued in March 2000, was restricted because he had a questionable credit record. His bosses soon quadrupled its limit from $2,500 to $10,000, the documents show.

The bank issued a fraud warning in August 2000 after suspicious activity on the card, but the Marines raised the credit limit twice more to $25,000. The sergeant eventually made two cash withdrawals from the card over two months, totaling $8,500.

The Marine's credit was finally revoked in February, almost a year after it was issued, and he left the service. The bank was forced to write off the debt as a loss.

Under its contract for travel cards, Bank of America isn't allowed to charge the government interest and must write off fraudulent purchases if it can't recover the money from violators. The bank has written off $59 million in debts involving more than 43,000 military travel credit cards.

The bank's records also detail cases in which:

* An Army soldier spent $3,100 on six visits over a few weeks to Hooters and Bottoms Up.

* An Army reservist's wife went on a $13,000 shopping spree in Puerto Rico.

* The widow of a deceased Navyman charged up $3,565.

* An Air Force National Guardsman's card was charged thousand of dollars for Internet gambling by his wife.

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