In May 2012, 22-year-old Jobson Cenor, a U.S. Marine stationed in Afghanistan, was arrested for allegedly selling the names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers of fellow Marines serving in Afghanistan. Allegedly, Cenor’s co-conspirator used the identities to file phony tax returns and reap the refunds, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. And that wasn't an isolated case.
Identity theft is everywhere for those in the military. Service members deployed overseas are often targeted by scam artists and identity thieves. Until recently, Social Security numbers were used as a soldier identifier on everything from dog tags to duffle bags. Changes are underway to minimize the damage for soldiers, but they also can take certain actions to keep an identity safe.
In 2011, military retirees and veterans suffered most of the reported fraud and identity theft crimes in the military. Enlisted personnel are targeted more than officers, according to the Sentinel Data Book, a report compiled to help law enforcement efforts. By far, identity theft made up the biggest chunk of complaints, with almost 30% (5,000 of 18,600 complaints.)
[InvestingAnswers Feature: The One Thing Keeping Some U.S. Troops From Financial Ruin]
Part I: The Despicable Crime Victimizing Thousands Of America's Heroes
Part II: 5 Crucial Steps To Protect Servicemembers From ID Theft, Fraud
Whether you're a member of the military or not, once your Social Security number or other data is stolen, it can be used repeatedly: to get false cash loans, drain your bank account, apply for credit cards or false driver licenses or claim your tax refunds -- all of which can cripple your cash flow and kill your good credit. If it happens, you don't get issued a new Social Security number. So after you stem the negative cash flow from one instance of stolen identity, another could occur four years later.
The U.S. Department of Defense recently has stepped up its efforts to protect military members. For example, it recently ordered Social Security numbers be taken off of military identifications. Social Security numbers also aren't allowed in emails, according to U.S. Marine spokesman Capt. Eric Flanagan.
Still, military personnel must remain hyper-vigilant. Some pay thousands of dollars for legal services once they are out from under the protective military arm.
But there are other steps that you can take to protect your own identity before the unthinkable occurs. (And many of these apply to civilians as well as servicemembers.)
1. Place An Alert
'If anybody is going to be deployed, one thing that they should do is place an active-duty alert on their credit report,' said Carol Kando-Pineda, counsel for the Division of Consumer and Business Education of the Federal Trade Commission (877-438-4338) in Washington, DC. The active-duty alert removes your name from national marketing lists and prescreened credit card and insurance offers and mandates that businesses need to verify your identity before issuing credit to anyone using your name.
To do it, call either Equifax (800-525-6258), Experian (888-397-3742) or TransUnion (800-680-7289) and tell the fraud department to put an active-duty alert on your credit report. One call may do it for all three agencies.
[InvestingAnswers Feature: 17 Shocking Facts About Identity Theft And Fraud In America]
The active-duty alert lasts for a year, and you can extend it throughout your deployment or time abroad. You can give the power to remove the alert to a friend, spouse or parent so that they can renew it while you're away. The fraud alert also works for travelers or anyone who may suspect their identities are being tampered with.
2. Order Copies Of Your Credit Report
Check to make sure everything on that report belongs to you -- your name, your address, your prior addresses, your accounts and the charges on the accounts.
'If anything doesn't seem right, you want to try to get it corrected,' Kando-Pineda said. 'It could be a simple mistake but it could be the tip of the iceberg that perhaps there's identity theft happening.'
3. Monitor Your Credit
Because each of the three credit agencies allow for one free credit report each year, it is possible to receive one free report every four months. Order the reports through annualcreditreport.com, by calling 877-322-8228 or printing the Annual Credit Report Request Form from the website and mailing it. Also, review your bank statements and bills in a timely manner and check on your online payments.
4. Beware Of Impersonators
If the IRS tells you that you worked a job that you never had or your tax refund has been claimed without you receiving it, someone is using your Social Security number. Call the IRS' Identity Protection Specialized Unit (800-908-4490). The IRS will ask you to download form #14039 from the website -- IRS.gov -- and submit it with a copy of an official photo identification, a copy of your Social Security card and a paper tax return.
They'll also ask you to report your identity theft to the FTC, the Social Security office (800-772-1213) and one of the three credit bureaus and to file an identity theft report or incident report at the local police department, said IRS spokeswoman Vicki Herrington. Make an extra copy of these reports with names of people you spoke with and file them in a safe place.
5. Lock Up Your Important Stuff
If you are in the military, be especially careful if you're living in a group situation, in barracks or in a place where a lot of people come and go. Lock up personal papers.
'You don't want to leave anything with credit card numbers or your medical insurance number or anything else lying around,' Kando-Pineda said. 'You want to shred anything that shows personal financial information.'
The Investing Answer: If you're in the military, tell your commanding officer if you think you’re a victim of identity theft, Kando-Pineda said.
Military bases often have legal offices that are open and available to those in active duty. You don't need a referral.
'Legal assistance offices provide Marines and their dependents information and advice concerning how to protect themselves from identity theft and how to take remedial steps when such a theft occurs,' Flanagan said.
If you are already out of the service, legal assistance may still be available if you can trace your information leak back to someone in the service, like Cenor or the laptop theft of 2006, which contained 26.5 million Social Security numbers of active military and veterans, Flanagan said.