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OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — The crime tempts with the appearance of easy cash but often ends in a military courtroom with a servicemember wiping away tears over a life in shambles.

It’s BAH, or basic allowance for housing, fraud, in which a servicemember overseas without accompanying family members lies about where his or her family is living to get a bigger housing allowance than is due.

BAH rates vary by locale, but the difference can amount to thousands of extra dollars in undeserved payments.

At Osan Air Base in recent months, Air Force prosecutors have tried three airmen for BAH fraud and authorities have several others under investigation, said Lt. Col. J. Steven Meador, staff judge advocate for Osan’s 51st Fighter Wing.

BAH fraud can occur anywhere servicemembers serve tours unaccompanied by family. That covers the bulk of airmen stationed in South Korea, mostly at Osan and Kunsan air bases.

Of the thousands of airmen who serve one-year remote South Korea assignments, Meador said, “we’re seeing a handful” emerging as BAH fraud suspects.

“It’s not an epidemic,” he said. “But even if one person does it and ruins their career, that’s just something we don’t like to see.”

It begins on BAH paperwork, with a servicemember providing a false address and zip code from an area with a high BAH rate.

“Typically, the two areas we see are San Francisco and San Diego,” Meador said.

“Once they’ve done that, the BAH rate differential usually is several thousand dollars a month, maybe up to $2,000 a month, that they get extra over what they’re entitled to,” he said.

In late 2005, the Air Force Audit Agency audited South Korea-based airmen’s BAH claims.

Auditors look for servicemembers now serving in remote assignment areas who report that their families continue to live in or have moved to a high-cost area, Meador said.

“Many times the audit can be completed with a simple phone call to the address that’s given by the member,” he said. “Then, if something doesn’t add up, they’ll turn it over to the OSI (Air Force Office of Special Investigations).”

In April, an airman was court-martialed after OSI agents found the San Francisco address he’d given for his family was a parking garage. The family actually lived in Bolivia.

The airman’s sentence included 10 months in prison and a punitive discharge.

Conviction on BAH fraud charges poses far-reaching consequences.

“First of all is your Air Force career,” Meador said. “You face confinement. You’ll have a federal conviction that will last with you for the rest of your life.

“You’ll have difficulties finding a job because of that conviction,” he said. “You may be punitively discharged and lose your veteran’s benefits. …

“The money that you made will be taken away and you’ll forfeit additional income, based on the sentence.”

Meador also cited “the embarrassment and the shame that come with a federal conviction. … And you’ve disgraced your unit and your own family name.

“It’s never a good thing for a mom and daddy to come over to Korea for the first time … because their son’s being put in jail,” Meador said, “and to wonder where they may have gone wrong.”

Some recent cases ...Recent convictions of airmen in South Korea on housing allowance fraud charges:

Sentenced March 8: Master Sgt. Paul Richardson, 607th Combat Communications Squadron, Camp Humphreys. Convicted of stealing $33,000 in housing allowances. Sentenced to reduction to the military’s lowest pay grade, E-1, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, 18 months in prison and a bad-conduct discharge.

Sentenced April 10: Staff Sgt. Lanny Marsh, 51st Munitions Squadron. Convicted of stealing $13,500 in housing allowances. Sentenced to reduction to E-1, one year in prison and a bad-conduct discharge.

Sentenced April 18: Senior Airman Jason R. Edwards, 607th Combat Communications Squadron, Osan Air Base. Convicted of stealing $16,000 in housing allowances. Sentenced to reduction to E-1, 10 months in prison and a bad-conduct discharge.

— Franklin Fisher

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