HOLYOKE — State Sen. John Velis (D-Westfield) saw a successful amendment adopted to the expanded HERO Act that would protect veterans from predatory “claim sharks” that target veterans who are seeking assistance filing the claims with the federal Department of Veteran Affairs.

“It is absolutely reprehensible that there are over 100 predatory claim shark companies operating and preying upon our commonwealth’s veterans,” Velis said in a statement.

Velis is a veteran himself and also serves as the chairman of the Veterans Committee. He added that creating a serious consequence for the predatory actions on veterans was “a monumental step” for the Senate in protecting those who have served.

“Often times, these claim shark companies are promising extremely vulnerable increased disability ratings or expedited claim decisions from the VA when in reality they are seeking to entrap veterans into paying exuberant fees for minimal assistance. It is beyond disgusting that veterans are being taken advantage of in this way,” Velis said.

Under federal law, it is currently illegal to charge hefty fees for “assisting” or “consulting” veterans with filing VA benefits claims however, federal law lacks criminal penalties for these bad actors known as claim sharks. The amendment adopted by the Senate would prohibit someone from receiving compensation for assisting in a veterans benefit matters except where allowed by federal law, and allows violators of this provision to be sued civilly under state consumer laws.

Velis joined Holyoke Media to speak further on the amendment and why he has been so active in this work to protect veterans from scams.

“I’ve come to a realization in my life that if there’s an opportunity to make money off someone else, no matter who that someone else is, there are people in this world who will take that opportunity,” Velis said.

Velis explained when veterans have to file claims with the VA, much of the work is paperwork intensive, resulting in the development of a cottage industry of “unscrupulous folks” who file claims for veterans while charging high interest rates. He added those doing this have also made false promises to veterans about the type of results they can get from the claim.

Velis gave credit to the veteran service officers throughout Western Massachusetts for bringing this issue to his attention. He explained they brought to his attention that there were groups charging for a service they provide already for free.

“I started off this intellectual journey where I found out that there are many people in this commonwealth that are doing that, they’re representing themselves to be people who are great, will help you get your claim processed,” Velis said. “I think it’s important to remember that a lot of these folks that they’re dealing with in many instances they’re older adults. In many instances, English is a second language. And it’s just folks trying to take advantage of others, in this instance veterans, by charging an exorbitant rate.”

Velis continued saying if a veteran and one of these groups has been taken advantage of, there will be an opportunity for the veteran to sue. If the case is proven, they will be able to not only recover their damages but will be able to receive triple the damages.

“I can’t think of any behavior more reprehensible than taking advantage of a disadvantaged veteran who needs help, and then charging that individual and then promising them a bill of goods of what you can deliver for them. And then taking their money and running or taking their money and just not doing anything for them. So, we put a stop to it,” Velis said.

With the amendment included in the Senate’s final HERO Act bill, it now needs to be adopted by a conference committee appointed to reconcile differences between the House and the Senate versions.