While U.S. soldiers are on distant shores defending our country, they can be under attack on the home front by a stealthy enemy. Identity theft is a big problem, the number one consumer complaint among military personnel, according to a 2015 Federal Trade Commission Report. Identity theft represented 30 percent of the military consumer complaints detailed in the report. This guide will help active military and veterans be alert for warnings signs of identity theft and take immediate action if it happens to them.
Why Military Personnel Are Vulnerable to Identity Theft
Identity theft happens when someone steals your personal information and uses it to open fake accounts or invade your current accounts and run up charges, potentially leaving you with huge debts and ruined credit ratings. Identity thieves can even commit crimes in your name, leaving you with a criminal record you’re unaware of until it surfaces unexpectedly.
Military IDs have been tied to social security numbers since the late 1960s. While civilians are conditioned to guard personal information, military members are accustomed to readily sharing their ID number with commanding officers or when filling out paperwork, applying for health care, even when using the laundry service or gym equipment on base.
This leaves them susceptible to identity thieves.
In recognition of the growing crime of identity theft, the White House in 2007 issued an order instructing all federal agencies to begin reducing the reliance on SSNs. This process is ongoing at the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Even so, with some 1.3 million Americans on active duty and more than 21 million veterans – plus family members – millions of the old military IDs with SSNs are still out there.
In addition to the ubiquitous use of their SSNs, military personnel are targeted and fall prey to identity theft for a variety of reasons.
Service members are especially attractive to identity thieves because of their steady, government-backed paycheck. Additionally, many are living on their own and earning a paycheck for the first time so may not yet be savvy about finances and personal information.
Keeping an eye on finances while training in a remote location or in combat on the other side of the world is difficult. Thieves have plenty of time to do damage before the identity theft is noticed.
While most people have a personal, private computer, active service members often rely on a centralized computer station on base that is shared with others. Closing a browser window and forgetting to log out leaves accounts vulnerable.
Unscrupulous retail merchants and online “data grab” companies target service members with offers of special discounts to get them to reveal personal information.
Similar to retail and online bogus offers, thieves pretend to offer a job, loan or apartment and request the service member’s personal information to “qualify” him or her.
How to Prevent Identity Theft as a Member of the Military
The most important action service members can take to protect their sensitive personal information and identity is to stay vigilant. If your military mission prevents you from taking action to protect your identity, arrange for a trusted family member or friend to do it for you. Explore the option of power of attorney before you deploy.
Here are some measures you can take to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft.
Place an “active duty alert” on your credit file when deployed. creditors to verify your identity before granting credit in your name. Active duty alerts last for one year but can be renewed. Contact one of the three major credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, TransUnion – the agency must alert the other two. Alert lasts for a year.
Check out military discount offers thoroughly. You should not have to exchange sensitive personal information for such deals. The old saying “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” applies.
Be wary when sharing your information in crowded, public areas. Keep your military ID, SSN and other sensitive personal information to yourself in public in case would-be thieves are trying to peek over your shoulder or eavesdrop.
Log out of accounts when you’re done if using a shared computer. Closing the browser window isn’t enough.
Monitor financial accounts regularly. These include your bank, credit card and health plan statements.
Obtain and read your credit report. This report is available annually from each of the three nationwide credit reporting companies at annualcreditreport.com.
Shred personal documents before discarding them. This includes credit card offers and documents with personal, financial and medical information.
Don’t respond to email, text or phone messages that ask for personal information. This is often a sign of a scam.
Use strong passwords to protect financial accounts. Don’t use the same one for all your accounts and change your passwords frequently.
Use encrypted websites when shopping or banking online. An encrypted site has “https” at the beginning of its web address; the “s” is for secure.
“Hack-proof” your computer. Use anti-virus and anti-spyware software and a firewall.
Guard personal information, such as your social security number, birthdate, credit card numbers and driver’s license number. Only share with companies you trust. Never provide personal information to retailers to get a merchant discount.
Use social media responsibly. An identity thief can use information gleaned online to answer “challenge” questions and gain access to your personal accounts.
What to Do if You Become a Victim of Identity Theft
If you suspect you have become a victim of identity fraud – bogus credit card charges, your card is declined, you receive calls from debt collectors – take immediate action.
Call your banks, credit card companies, utilities and merchants you patronize to prevent further charges being made to your accounts.
That reporting agency must call the other two agencies. Creditors will have to follow extra procedures before opening new accounts in your name. It lasts 90 days.
You can request a free copy of your credit report from www.annualcreditreport.com per year. It includes your information from each of the three consumer reporting companies listed above.
“You can do so by filing a complaint with the FTC or by calling 1-877-438-4338. Take that to file a police report; get a copy of the police report. The two documents comprise an “identity theft report.”
If creditors call looking to collect on fraudulent charges, you’ll be glad that you’ve given your leadership a heads up.
It allows you a free credit report to look for anything suspicious. Lenders must verify your identity before approving credit. The alert lasts 90 days.
An extended fraud alert will help if you actually have been a victim of identity theft and have filed an “identity theft report” with one of the nationwide credit reporting companies. Again, lenders must contact you before approving new credit for you. It lasts seven years unless you remove it sooner.
Emma Fletcher is the BBB scam tracker project director with the BBB Institute for Marketplace Trust, the educational foundation of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. She has more than two decades of experience in dispute resolution and consumer protection, particularly in the areas of marketplace scams, identity theft and privacy. She is a certified information privacy professional and holds a master’s degree in public administration from George Mason University.
Why are military personnel vulnerable to ID theft?
The military uses Social Security numbers extensively to identify personnel. Social Security numbers were printed on military IDs and dog tags for decades, and this practice was not completely phased out until 2015. This created opportunity for the information to get into the hands of identity thieves. Overseas deployments or long absences can mean that identity theft goes undetected for an extended period of time.
What can military personnel do to protect themselves from ID theft?
Service members preparing to deploy should consider placing an active duty alert on their credit files with the three major credit bureaus. An active duty alert, which must be renewed annually, notifies creditors to take extra precautions to verify identity when granting credit. A security freeze, which blocks access to an individual’s credit reports entirely until they choose to “thaw” them, offers even greater protection. Security freezes are an especially good bet for those who do not apply for credit frequently, which is often the case for retired veterans and deployed personnel.
What are the warning signs of identity theft?
Unfortunately, the first sign for many people is when they apply for a loan, only to find out their credit has been ruined by an imposter. We encourage everyone to check their credit reports regularly for unfamiliar accounts or inquiries. Go to annualcreditreport.com; that’s the only website authorized by the Federal Trade Commission for free credit reports. Other signs of identity theft include debt collectors calling about unfamiliar debts, an IRS notification of more than one tax return filed in a taxpayer’s name, missing bills or other mail or notices from a health insurance provider of medical coverage for unfamiliar medical services.
What steps should identity theft victims take?
Anyone who has been the victim of identity theft should go to identitytheft.gov, which is a service of the Federal Trade Commission, for a customized recovery plan.
Request your federally guaranteed free annual credit report from each of the three nationwide consumer credit reporting companies online or at 1-877-322-8228.
The VA’s “More Than a Number” initiative spreads awareness of identity theft and disseminates information on identity theft prevention to veterans and their beneficiaries at the Identity Theft Help Line, 1-855-578-5492
The BBB’s Military Line consumer education program provides free financial literacy resources to service members and veterans.
The federal government’s one-stop resource for identity theft victims.
Offers an online guide about identity theft for military personnel and families.
A non-profit organization to support victims of identity theft features a page of links to information and resources specific to the military.
Fraud protection tools to help safeguard service members.
A tip sheet on how to avoid identity theft from this Department of Defense website providing military life information to active military and veterans.