A pair of senators wants new criminal penalties for scammers who prey on veterans, arguing the punishment is needed to discourage would-be wrongdoers from targeting individuals who have already sacrificed for their country.

The Veterans Protection from Fraud Act — introduced by Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., and Ted Budd, R-N.C., on Wednesday — would add up to 10 more years in prison for individuals convicted of mail fraud and similar crimes when the victim is a veteran. In many cases, that could double the sentence already allowed under federal law.

“Nevada veterans have put their lives on the line for this country, and we must do everything we can to stop scams targeting them,” Cortez Masto said in a statement. “My bipartisan bill strengthens penalties for fraud against veterans and makes it more difficult for criminals to target them.”

Last year, individuals filed nearly 93,000 federal fraud complaints connected to their veterans benefits or veterans status, totaling more than $164 million. The senators behind the measure said they are concerned that veterans are becoming more of a target following recent congressional efforts to boost the availability of benefits options for veterans.

Ross Bryant, the executive director of the Military and Veteran Services Center at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said his office has seen an increase in recent years in the number of veterans receiving solicitations from groups posing as charities to help other military members or families.

“They especially seem to be preying on older veterans, who maybe aren’t as savvy with their passwords and personal information,” he said. “There are a lot of legitimate nonprofits out there, but there are a lot of scammers too.”

The measure has the support of numerous veterans groups, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Disabled American Veterans. In a statement, Budd said the new penalties “send a strong message that we will not allow America’s veterans to be victimized by criminals.”

Whether the measure can advance in Congress this year remains unclear. The Senate is scheduled to break for the end of the summer starting this Friday. When lawmakers return, they’ll have to rush through a host of budget work before October to avoid a partial government shutdown.

No timeline has been set for hearings or votes on the fraud legislation, but it could be rolled into end-of-year legislative packages focused on veterans issues.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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