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Officials urge protection against identity theft

WASHINGTON -- Defense Department officials are urging servicemembers to be aware of identity theft and are providing ways for them to protect themselves, the director of DOD's personal finance office said.

Dave Julian said officials take the problem very seriously.

"We equate it to service readiness," he said.

Servicemembers dealing with financial issues are less likely to be ready to fully perform their missions, he explained.

Identity theft can cause financial stress, he added.

Young servicemembers who have grown up in the digital world sometimes take a casual approach to divulging information that can be useful to identity thieves, Mr. Julian said.

"Our force is part of the digital generation," he said. "Our force lives online. We see that they are very forthcoming with their personal information."

Additionally, servicemembers get a steady paycheck, and companies want to show their patriotism by extending credit to them, he said. But that makes it easier for thieves to use servicemembers' stolen identities and profit quickly.

To help servicemembers protect against identity theft, the DOD has joined with the Federal Trade Commission on its "Deter, Detect and Defend" campaign, Mr. Julian said. While the campaign is aimed at the general public, a brochure has been developed especially for the military.

One of the key suggestions for deploying servicemembers is activating "an active-duty alert," which requires creditors to obtain specific permission from a servicemember or an official representative before extending credit.

There is no charge for active-duty alerts, and they last for one year and can be extended, he said.

Active-duty alerts can be activated by calling the toll-free fraud telephone number for one of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies. That company is required to notify the other two companies that a servicemember has activated a duty alert.

Another option servicemembers can use to protect themselves is putting a "freeze" on their credit report to restrict access to it. Once a freeze is in place, potential creditors and other third parties will not be able to get access to a credit report unless the freeze is lifted.

Credit-freeze laws vary from state to state. In some states, only identity-theft victims can freeze their credit. The cost of placing, temporarily lifting or removing a credit freeze also varies. Many states make credit freezes free for identity theft victims, but depending upon where they live, others may pay a fee of typically $10 to each of the three credit-reporting agencies.

Since spouses left at home often handle deployed servicemembers' finances, they should be aware of identity theft and how to protect against it, Mr. Julian said. Because of this, identity theft usually is covered in predeployment briefings that servicemembers and their spouses are encouraged to attend.

Single servicemembers who are deployed can be at a disadvantage, because they need to watch out for identity theft themselves or have a trusted agent, such as a parent, keep track of their accounts, Mr. Julian said.

But whether single or married, he said, servicemembers who choose to watch their finances while they are deployed need to remember that common-use computers are dangerous things.

It's important to log off -- completely back out -- if they are monitoring their personal information on a common-use computer or in an Internet café, he said.

Servicemembers should request a copy of their credit report every year from each credit-reporting agency, Mr. Julian said.

Since there are three credit-reporting agencies, he suggested requesting a different copy from a separate agency every four months.

Identity theft affecting deployed servicemembers is an ongoing problem, said Gary McAlum, the senior vice president for enterprise security for USAA, an insurance and financial services company.

USAA has worked quickly to lock down the accounts of known victims and of servicemembers whose information had been stolen but whose accounts had yet to be targeted, he said.

A recent case involved servicemembers victimized by a criminal ring that collected personal information and then used that information to open credit card accounts and drain savings accounts, Mr. McAlum said.

Identity thieves sometimes use "social engineering" to obtain information, using an "authoritative-voice" tactic to get someone to offer personal information over the telephone, Mr. McAlum said. The thief then uses the same tactic with creditors to get credit.

A thief who doesn't have all of the information required by the creditor often will "sound dumb" to creditors to obtain the information, he added.

Deploying servicemembers "are obviously not going to be as vigilant as they deploy, get ready to deploy or are coming home from a deployment, so it is important that they use online resources" to make sure everything is in order, said Mike Kelly, a USAA spokesman.

Mr. McAlum stressed that identity theft is a significant problem for the nation.

"The fact that it is exploiting our servicemembers just makes it worse," he said.