How military personnel can protect their credit records

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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.

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.

A federal lawmaker is moving forward with his proposal. Rep. John Salazar, D.-Colo., has introduced the “Comprehensive Veterans’ Data Protection and Identity Theft Prevention Act,” designed to protect and inform military veterans when their personal information is breached. The measure requires the VA to provide, free of charge, credit monitoring services and a copy of their credit reports once a year over a two-year period for those affected. The individuals would also have the option to participate in a free fraud alert and credit security freeze for a year.

Steps to protect credit
But, military personnel also can practice a little self-defense to protect their credit while they are away.

For one, they can put an ”
active duty” alert on their credit reports for one year to reduce the chances of someone committing financial fraud.

The alert lets a business know that it must first verify the person’s identity before issuing credit. If the serviceman or
-woman is deployed, the law would allow a personal representative to place or remove an alert. The Federal Trade Commission explains that placing the active-duty alert on the report will also remove the military personnel’s name from the nationwide consumer reporting companies marketing lists for pre-screened credit and insurance for at least two years.

To place or remove the alert, one of the big three credit reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian or TransUnion, must be contacted. The military personnel will need proof of identity, Social Security number, name, address and other personal information.

Military departments are advising military personnel to protect their financial records.

Check bank statements, credit card statements and any other statements related to recent financial transactions for suspicious activity.

The VA indicates causes for suspicion include:
Inquiries from companies you haven’t contacted or done business with.
Purchases or charges on your accounts you didn’t make.
New accounts you didn’t open or changes to existing accounts you didn’t make.
Bills that don’t arrive as expected.
Unexpected credit cards or account statements.
Denials of credit for no apparent reason.
Calls or letters about purchases you didn’t make.

The law allows individuals one free copy of their credit report each year, so request a free report from the three major credit bureaus.

Reacting to suspicious activity:
Contact the fraud department of one of the three major credit bureaus.
Close any accounts that have been tampered with or opened.
File a police report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place.
File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.