What Happens if Someone Fakes Having a Military Background?

The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 makes it illegal to impersonate a member of the military for any form of material personal gain, such as money or housing.

Under U.S. federal law, it is a crime to falsely claim certain military honors. This is commonly referred to as claiming “stolen valor,” after the 2013 law of the same name. Despite being illegal, acts of stolen valor are rarely prosecuted in the U.S. For that reason, many veterans and their families remain unsure of how to react to discovering a fraudulent military background.

In this article, we’ll go over the Stolen Valor Act and its history. We’ll also talk about the proper way to report a stolen valor violation.

What Is the Stolen Valor Act?

bronze star military award

President George W. Bush signed the first Stolen Valor Act into law in 2005. This Act amended the U.S.’s decades-old laws regarding falsifying a military background, making them more enforceable. Under this original law, individuals who lied about their military service or medals could be prosecuted.

However, in 2012, the Supreme Court reviewed the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 and found it unconstitutional. This prompted the drafting of a new Stolen Valor Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2013.

Under the Stolen Valor Act of 2013, it is illegal to falsely claim to have received certain military honors. However, in order to qualify as stolen valor, the individual must be claiming an honor for the purpose of personal gain.

Furthermore, this gain must be a “tangible benefit”, such as money, property, or medical benefits. In comparison, lying for attention or respect is not a crime under the current Stolen Valor Act.

The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 also makes it illegal to falsely claim a variety of military distinctions. The Act specifically lists the following merits, falsifying any of these may result in a harsher penalty:

  • Medals of Honor from any branch of the U.S. Armed Services.
  • Distinguished Service Crosses.
  • Navy and Air Force Crosses.
  • Combat Action Ribbons.
  • Combat Action Medals and Badges.
  • Silver Stars.
  • Purple Hearts.
  • Combat Infantryman’s Badges.
  • Combat Medical Badges.

What Are the Penalties for Violating the Stolen Valor Act?

Individuals who violate the Stolen Valor Act can face a maximum penalty of one year in prison. In addition, convicted individuals will face fines of amounts left to the discretion of the judge.

Further, civil cases can be brought against them to force them to pay back the tangible benefits they stole.

How Do You Report a Violation of the Stolen Valor Act?

Stack of paper with black binder clips.

Violations of the Stolen Valor Act are federal offenses. This means that in order for someone to take action against such a violation, you will need to submit a report to federal law enforcement. In most cases, this means going through the FBI’s reporting system.

In addition, there are many activist groups that claim to investigate stolen valor violations. However, you should be careful about the manner in which they do so. Most reputable organizations will investigate at no cost, and ultimately have no legal authority. Ultimately, these organizations can only submit reports to the federal government and hope that it takes action, just the same as you.

Before you make your report, however, consider the following questions.

Is this Really a Violation of the Stolen Valor Act?

As mentioned above, the Stolen Valor Act of 2013 only applies to cases where a person receives real tangible benefits by claiming military honors.

Federal prosecutors will consider the magnitude of such benefits when deciding whether or not to prosecute a stolen valor case. Prosecutors are unlikely to take on cases involving only minor benefits, such as individual donations or low-level job offerings.

Is this a Purposefully Fraudulent Claim?

Sometimes, suspected violations of the Stolen Valor Act turn out to be legitimate cases of confusion or memory issues. For that reason, it’s important to do thorough research before submitting a tip.

While recent military records are protected by the Privacy Act of 1974, there are exceptions. In particular, you may request limited service information from the National Archives through the Freedom of Information Act. Doing so will allow you to provide more complete information to the FBI.

Does Impersonating a Military Officer Count as Stolen Valor?

The Stolen Valor Act only prohibits individuals from falsifying a military background and associated honors. This is separate from impersonating a military officer, which is a much more serious crime.

However, as with the Stolen Valor Act, the individual accused must have sought to gain money or property through their deception. Otherwise, their actions were not criminal.

Under 18 U.S. Code § 912 (also summarized here by the Justice Department), a person falsely claiming to represent the U.S. military or government could face up to three years in prison. If they used a military uniform in the course of their deception, the court may also try them under 10 U.S. Code § 771.

Is VA Fraud a Violation of the Stolen Valor Act?

Falsifying a military background to obtain benefits can be prosecuted as a federal crime that carries steep penalties in excess of those available under the Stolen Valor Act. Under 18 U.S.C Code § 1347, individuals who falsify military papers in order to receive medical treatment may be charged with fraud.

VA fraud and abuse of benefits can both be reported via the Departments of Veterans Affairs OIG hotline. Make sure you collect as much information about the suspected fraud as possible before doing so.

State Stolen Valor Laws

The state flag of Texas and American flag waving in the wind on flagpole. Blue sky background with copy space.

Some states also have their own version of the federal Stolen Valor Act. Generally speaking, these state laws differ from the Federal act by proscribing different penalties.

Additionally, state laws may be easier to enforce, since there is no need to go through the FBI to do so. However, each of the state laws listed below still requires that the accused individual must have obtained tangible benefits through their deception.

Currently, four states have introduced Stolen Valor legislation:

  • Pennsylvania, which prohibits both falsified honors and improper wearing of military uniforms.
  • Massachusetts, which prohibits both falsified honors and impersonation of an officer.
  • New Jersey, which criminalizes falsified honors and impersonation of an officer.
  • Texas, which works identically to the federal Stolen Valor Act except that it specifies a maximum fine of $2,000.

In Virginia, it is a class 1 misdemeanor to impersonate a military officer or veteran with the intent to obtain services, punishable by a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.

Conclusion

Army woman in uniform with the U.S. flag.

Although Stolen Valor laws have existed since the 50’s, few people have been prosecuted under them. This is due in part to the fact that violations of the Stolen Valor Act tend to go unreported. Fortunately, anti-fraud statutes and state Stolen Valor statutes provide an alternate method for reporting and preventing this form of fraud.

In any case, the biggest thing to remember is that impersonating a military member in order to receive material benefits is a federal crime with extremely harsh penalties. Further, there are several ways to report incidents such as these at both the state and federal levels.

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