Imposters who lie about being a decorated war veteran for monetary gain could face more than federal charges in South Carolina under a new bill making its way through the Legislature.
The South Carolina Military Service Integrity and Preservation Act unanimously cleared the state House last month and is being reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The legislation would establish a $500 fine and a 30-day prison sentence for any person who "knowingly and falsely" represents themselves as a U.S. veteran to fraudulently obtain money, property or any other tangible benefit.
Federal violators who commit similar acts now face up to a year in prison.
"I am not sure why, but for some reason it appears that South Carolina has an epidemic of these imposters," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Stephen Goldfinch Jr., R-Murrells Inlet.
The problem has grown as crooks can more easily find fake military documents, medals and uniforms on auction Web sites and tap into what statistics indicate is a lucrative market.
In fiscal year 2013, the Department of Veterans Affairs provided more than $59 billion in compensation benefits and more than $5 billion in pension payments to 4.5 million veterans and survivors nationwide, according to federal data.
Goldfinch, a South Carolina attorney and Navy veteran, said at least 10 veterans and advocacy groups in the Charleston area have contacted him to report more than 100 incidents statewide of con artists claiming to have served in the military or won a medal.
The South Carolina bill would create a misdemeanor offense and cover all "written or oral communication" that is fake, including service resumes, decorations, medals, ribbons or other means of honoring veterans authorized by Congress.
In writing the bill, Goldfinch said he consulted a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the Stolen Valor Act of 2005. The court said that while it's disreputable to lie about receiving a medal, it's still protected under the First Amendment. A revised version of the act was signed by President Obama last year.
Goldfinch, a 2010 graduate of the Charleston School of Law, said legislators were able to work around the decision by writing the bill to apply only to criminals who lie about being veterans with the intent to profit personally or financially.
"We did not think it was necessary to go to the felony level, but we did think in order to preserve the integrity of the veterans who served, fought and died for South Carolina that it was important to prevent imposters," said Goldfinch, 31.
Mary Schantag, a Marine widow who lives in Missouri and operates the Fake Warriors Project, said "prevent" is the key word.
Since launching the veteran-vetting venture in 1998, she said her nonprofit group and partners at similar sites have identified more than 6,000 hoaxers. The VA does not track such cases and as a result, suspects are rarely prosecuted.
"The problem is not the law," Schantag said. "It's enforcement."
She spent more than a decade working with her husband, Chuck, a Marine corporal wounded in Vietnam, to expose fake veterans. Since his death last year, she said she has averaged a dozen claims a day. She said the organization does not break down records by state.
"We used to list names on our Web site, but we cannot keep up," she said. "It's literally an everyday affair. It's an epidemic."
Schantag uses Internet background searches and files Freedom of Information requests to corroborate suspicious claims. She also taps her personal connections with Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, military chaplains, historians and archivists to double-check her detective work.
"It's a long process," said Schantag, who estimates that it takes four to six weeks for her federal record requests to be filled.
She said when her team feels it has found something criminal, it informs the VA inspector general, the FBI and local or state authorities, but the investigations usually stop there.
The U.S. Department of Justice tracks claims filed under the Stolen Valor Act, but spokesman Peter Carr said in an e-mail that no such cases were filed in 2013. He did not elaborate on how claims are substantiated.
Goldfinch said his bill would only define the law and set penalties. Enforcement, he said, would be up to local authorities.
"That's where the heartbreak comes into play," Schantag said. "We work our butts off to prove (people) are liars, forgers and thieves, but no one is being arrested, charged or prosecuted. Don't placate us with the law unless you intend to enforce it."