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How military personnel can protect their credit records

As if U.S. military personnel and veterans didn't have enough to worry about these days, problems on the home front have left millions of them vulnerable to identity theft.

In several well-publicized cases, potentially sensitive information useful for identity theft has been exposed. Actions have been taken to protect the affected personnel, but experts say steps individuals can take on their own are the best bet.

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Earlier this year, a missing laptop computer with an external hard drive had U.S. government officials searching frantically and federal lawmakers holding hearing after hearing to determine what caused what has been called the second largest breach of personal data in American history.

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Local law enforcement determined that a random burglary occurred at the Maryland home of a Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, data analyst on May 3. The culprit or culprits toted away the now-infamous equipment that the employee had taken home to work on a project. The data analyst was later placed on administrative leave.

What was stolen?
The highly sensitive information stored in the hardware contained what the VA determined was personal information on 26.5 million military veterans and active duty personnel, including names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and, possibly, spouses' information.

The VA laptop was recovered at the end of June. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has concluded in a written statement that both the FBI and the Virginia Office of Inspector General were highly confident that the files on the external hard drive were not compromised.

A couple weeks later, more personal information ended up on public display. Information that included the full names and Social Security numbers of more than 100,000 Navy and Marine Corps aviators and air crew, active and reserve members, showed up on the Naval Safety Center Web site.

"The information was also contained on 1,083 Web-enabled safety system program disks mailed to Navy and Marine Corps commands," according to a written statement from the Naval Safety Center's Public Affairs Office.

What is being done?
Navy personnel immediately removed the information, and the center is investigating how the information was put up on the site. The center is also re-calling the disk.

Both the Navy Personnel Command Center and the VA, with the help of other federal departments and other organizations, have taken corrective actions. Both have sent out letters to aid potential victims and have set up manned call centers: The VA's center can be reached at (800) 333-4636 and operates 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. (EDT) Monday through Saturday. The Navy center's phone number is (866) 827-5672 and operates 24 hours a day.

At first, the VA announced free credit monitoring for those who might be affected. However, the monitoring plan was dropped after the FBI determined that the information probably had not been compromised. The VA is now planning to hire a company that provides data breach analysis as an additional safeguard.

VA Secretary R. James Nicholson laid out further plans in his testimony before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs that include a security review of laptop computers in the VA, an inventory of all positions requiring access to sensitive VA data and a major technical reorganization.

Next: "Military personnel also can practice a little self-defense."
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