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The Despicable Crime Victimizing Thousands Of America's Heroes

While one U.S. soldier lived off of dead dogs and onions in 130-degree heat during a tour in Afghanistan, someone was stealing his most precious possession.

A certain kind of theft is hitting members of the military especially hard. In fact, our country's heroes are being preyed upon precisely because they are away from home.

When my friend Mike, whose name we've changed to protect his identity, was in the infantry in 2006, he didn't have access to a computer for eight months, let alone supplies. Once, he survived on dead dogs and onions for 45 days because he was so far ahead of the supply trucks that kept getting blown up along the way. He lost 47 pounds, had bouts with dysentery and suffered from malnutrition in the desert heat.

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And while he was overseas, at war, his identity was stolen, leaving him with an $83,000 boat loan and 300% interest rates to contend with.

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Mike is not alone. According to a report from the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft tops the list for types of fraud crimes on our military personnel. Most complaints came from the Army and from Alaska.

By far, identity theft made up the biggest chunk of complaints with almost 30% (5,000 of 18,600 complaints) -- followed by debt collection at 14% (2,700 complaints). Government documents/benefits fraud and credit card fraud were the most common type of reported identity theft in 2011 for the military. Enlisted personnel are targeted more than officers, according to the Sentinel Data Book, the report created to help law enforcement efforts.

Up until very recently, the Social Security number appeared on a lot of the service members' gear -- their uniform, a footlocker, the duffel bag they might carry around -- and so that number was emblazoned everywhere," said Carol Kando-Pineda, counsel for the Division of Consumer and Business Education of the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, DC. "I've heard from service members who have said, 'We were stacking up vehicles to load our gear to go, to fly to a duty station or to get on a ship or whatever, and you could see the bags stacked up with the Social Security numbers facing up.'"

"According to the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense has moved to reduce the use of Social Security numbers "whenever possible." They are not to be used on spreadsheets, hard copy lists, forms, electronic reports or surveys -- unless the need for them meets more stringent criteria.

"Some of the major initiatives Marines will notice are that there are no longer SSNs on military or dependant ID cards, and any form not required by law or operational necessity will use the last four as an identifier," said Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Eric Flanagan. "Any federal government forms that require the SSN are protected under the Privacy Act, and the records of the individuals maintained in accordance with the Privacy Act."

This is a big change from a few years ago, when Mike was told to put his name and Social Security number across just about every piece of paper that he submitted for military business. Many forms also asked for his mother's maiden name.

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While in the Marine Corps from 2006 to 2011, he had duties in 14 countries, and his paperwork needed to follow him. When the paperwork was lost, he wondered who was accountable for all of his private information. He described instances when his rank and occupation were erroneously listed when he reached a location.

When it finally was time for his discharge, he was told to come back the next day so that his paperwork could be found. He noticed the people working the desks were barely out of high school and wondered how protected his information was.

At the time, Mike was oblivious to the battle ahead. In November 2011, three months after he was discharged, he was taking a woman out on a date, and two of his credit cards were declined. He would later learn that someone had used his identity to clean out his entire savings of $14,000; to get an $83,000 boat loan; to take out 12 or so short-term, high-interest payday loans, sometimes at 300% interest; and to use up four new credit cards. The thief made it look as if each loan was from a different location, which means Mike must battle each loan separately.

Mike agrees with the FTC report for the military. He says at least 30 of his friends are living the nightmare of trying to reclaim their identities. One three-time combat veteran had his identity so corrupted, it looked as if he had never served.

In fact, the problem is so widespread, he said, "I don't know a single person I served with who hasn't at least had some sort of issue like a banking issue, money (getting) wiped out or strange charges on their accounts." Older veterans warn him that the problems resurface repeatedly, every four years or so, because their Social Security numbers remain somehow accessible to the wrong people.

Because Mike was discharged from the military three months before the problems began to surface, he had to fight to reclaim his credit and identity without help from the military. He's already spent $4,000 on legal fees and is still unraveling the mess that was made of his life. Now in the reserves, he's ready to go on with his life, yet he's routinely denied on applications for apartment rentals and car loans despite having the cash for a hefty down payment.

Luckily, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was able to recover the cash in his bank account. Yet, because he's now in school, he worries how he will fare on the job market because checking credit scores are often part of the hiring process.

"Your credit score is a reflection of your responsibility," Mike said. "Mine makes me look like I'm an imbecile."

The Investing Answer: If you are about to be deployed, call Equifax, Experian and TransUnion and tell their fraud departments to place an active-duty alert on your information, Flanagan said. It lasts for a year and can be extended each year if your duties are extended, Kando-Pineda said. You can also choose a person to extend it for you if necessary. If you’ve already left the Marines and are a victim of identity theft, Flanagan recommended referring to this booklet.