Identify Theft Harms Soldiers, Too
March 2, 2007
FORT KNOX, Ky. (Army News Service, March 2, 2007) - Gregory Turner knows a thing or two about identity theft.
The Lesson Learned Integration Liaison Officer gained his knowledge the hard way.
"Someone started using my personal information - my employment and residential history - to establish credit accounts, and electric and water accounts," Turner said. "Bills started coming to my address and bill collectors started calling my house for a person who had the same last name as mine, and who had used my personal information to open the accounts that they were trying to collect on."
Turner decided to see what he could find out about his imitator and "Googled" his name online. He discovered that the individual had obtained his personal history covering a 20-year span.
"I immediately called all my creditors, banks, credit card companies and all three credit reporting agencies to make them aware of the situation," he said. "Also, I put a fraud alert on all my accounts."
Because the thief had not stolen Turner's Social Security number, and because Turner quickly notified his creditors and the credit reporting agencies, he was able to minimize the damage to his credit.
"(It) was very frightening to find out that someone was able to get my personal information and use it to gain employment and open accounts," he said. "Because of technology, I don't believe that there is a fool-proof way to fix this problem. However, a 24-hour fraud-alert monitoring plan has helped to minimize (my risk)."
Identity theft occurs when a thief acquires someone's personal information and uses it to establish credit accounts. The thief may also obtain loans in the victims name for such big-ticket items as vehicles, furniture or appliances.
Most victims, like Turner, don't know they've been targeted until they begin receiving bills they know nothing about.
Military and civilian personnel are frequently asked to provide such personal information as birth dates and Social Security numbers. But handing out that type of information can be damaging if you don't know how your information is being used and by whom, said Adam French, a military police investigator here.
There are several ways that a thief can obtain information, from simply asking to stealing a purse or wallet, or rummaging though unshreded trash.
French said that an identity thief doesn't need someone's credit card to use it.
"A thief can use a stolen credit card at any store that does not check IDs, or the thief can use (the number without the card in-hand) for online purchases," he said.
Any place with a swipe machine at the checkout - if there is no ID check in place - is a prime location for a thief to use a stolen credit card, French added.
<b>Preventing Identify Theft</b>
The best way to prevent identity theft is to safeguard personal information, French said. This includes a person's Social Security number, bank and credit card account numbers, annual income, mother's maiden name, birth date, addresses and phone numbers. With that information a thief can, on paper, assume another person's identity.
"Shred (things like) bank and credit card statements before you throw them away," French said.
And when you receive a catalog in the mail, he said, don't throw it away until you have removed account numbers or other personal information by tearing out the order form on the inside of the catalog and shredding it.
Thieves also steal personal information via computer. In late December, about 25 Thrift Savings Plan investors were alerted that their accounts had been hacked for a total loss of $35,0000, French said. The investors' computers were infected with software that allowed hackers to monitor keystrokes and learn PIN numbers to the victims TSP accounts.
TSP participants have been asked to install protective programs on their computers to block spyware, and to log off the Web site when they are finished accessing their accounts. But this precaution doesn't apply just to TSP accounts. Anytime someone uses the Internet to shop online, bank online or do account maintenance online, that person is at risk for the same type of hacking, especially if the user doesn't have a firewall installed on the computer. Because viruses and spyware hit computer servers daily, industry experts recommend protecting computers with specially designed protection programs.
Virus protection and spyware protection is available free to servicemembers and DoD personnel through their Army Knowledge Online account, under the "Self Service" link. These programs can't, however, prevent Web users from opening the e-mails carrying spyware or clicking on attachments they shouldn't.
According to the Identity Theft Resource Center (<a href="http://www.idtheftcenter.org"target=_blank> www.idtheftcenter.org</a>), there are several popular scams used to obtain personal information. One involves calling a victim and posing as a credit card agency. The thief asks the victim to verify a credit card number, or the safe code on the back. The ITRC Web site warns readers not to give out such information, and to call the company directly to find out if it really needs the information and why.
Other scams involve e-mails that come from, for example, a financial institution with which the user is familiar. The e-mail will forward the user to an official-looking site, then request the user's account number, Social Security number or other personal information. These e-mails should be discarded and the financial institution contacted immediately.
Other examples include e-mails about winning lottery tickets, or money from foreign countries.
Even when traveling, people need to be aware of little things, French said.
"We had a case where a servicemember was at a hotel and left his checkbook out," French said. "The maid came in and took a check out of the book. In hotel rooms, where we feel safe, you still need to put things away."
French also pointed out that Soldiers living in the barracks should keep their personal items secured, even if the room is locked. High-value items should be engraved with an ID number or the owner's name, so the Soldier has a better chance of recovering them if stolen.
Should someone discover, like Turner, that they are a victim of identity theft, French said the first thing to do is contact all their credit card companies, financial institutions and the three major credit agencies.
"Place a hold, or a freeze, on those accounts," he said "Contact the credit agencies and put a fraud alert on your credit report."
The FTC Web site (<a href="http://www.ftc.gov"target=_blank> www.ftc.gov</a>) advises victims to file a complaint with the FTC, close any accounts that appeared to be tampered with and file a police report where the ID theft took place.
Lastly, French said, the best way to avoid ID theft is to safeguard personal information, shred financial documents and other papers containing personal information, refuse to divulge personal information unless you know who you're dealing with, and don't discard mail before destroying personal information.
For his part, Turner put fraud alerts on all his accounts, regularly requests credit reports so he can see if anything unexpected appears on them, requests a semi-annual HMO billing statement, and regularly checks his vehicle insurance and driving record.
He encourages others to visit the FTC Web site to learn about ID theft and how to prevent it.
"Research shows that it is not a matter of 'if' you will become a victim of identity theft, but when," Turner said.
Consumers are eligible for one free credit report a year from each of the three major credit bureaus. For details go to <a href="http://www.annualcreditreport.com"target=_blank> www.annualcreditreport.com</a>.
(Rachael Tolliver is the associate editor for the Fort Knox "Turret.")