Soldiers Twice as Likely to Complain about Debt Collection

(CBS NEWS) U.S. service members have a debt problem, but it's not the kind that affects many Americans.

Members of the military and veterans are twice as likely to complain about debt collection as the general population, according to the federal Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. One reason for the slew of complaints may be tied to how debt and problematic credit reports can threaten -- and even end -- a military career.

"Unpaid debt can impact a service member's military career, affecting their security clearances, duty status, potential promotions and even their retention in the military," said Holly Petraeus, assistant director for the CFPB's Office of Servicemember Affairs. "We know that many debt collectors are aware of this, and some use that knowledge to threaten service members about losing their security clearance or contacting their chain of command if a debt isn't paid."

A troubled credit report, such as one that includes unpaid loans or debts that are in collection, can serve as a red flag to the military. That's because a person who is falling behind in their financial obligations may be more open to bribes or accepting money in exchange for disclosing security secrets. As a result, military personnel may be more likely to seek to clear up problems on their credit reports than the general population.

But military life can also make it difficult for service members to keep up with their financial obligations. With every move or deployment, for instance, comes the risk that a bill might not be forwarded to them, leading to a higher chance of running into a collections problem.

"The realities of military life, such as deployments or frequent moves, can make service members particularly vulnerable to financial problems, simply because they may not have access to information or may need to make quick financial decisions," Petraeus said.

Petraeus added that the average age of the active force is the early to mid-twenties, which means many of them might not have experience with financial products. "Financial literacy is a problem for service members," she said.

There's growing awareness of the need for better financial literacy training for service members, with the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 calling for the Department of Defense to improve training for members of the armed forces.

Take the issue of service members and auto loans, an area that was singled out as problematic by the CFPB. Some service members reported dismay at discovering that their car loan contracts prohibited them from taking the car out of the U.S. Some were "often completely unaware of this restriction when they took out the loan," the report notes.

"While a service member should be proactive about understanding the contract and looking for terms that might impact their military lifestyle -- like not being able to take the car out of the country -- it would be helpful if the lender actively pointed out limitations like these, as well," Petraeus said.

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