Military Taking Steps to Protect Against Identity Theft
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 23, 2004 As stricter penalties go into effect for identity theft, the Defense Department and the services are taking steps to protect service members, their families and DoD civilians from being victimized.
Identity theft occurs when someone uses another person's name, Social Security number or other personal information to apply for credit, buy goods and services, or commit other fraud.
President Bush signed a bill into law July 15 stiffening penalties for identity thieves. He said they undermine public trust while "running up bills on credit card accounts that the victim never knew existed" and "quickly damag(ing) a person's lifelong efforts to build and maintain a good credit rating."
Cmdr. Frank Mellott, chief staff officer for Naval Network and Space Operations Command at Dahlgren, Va., knows firsthand just how devastating identity theft can be to its victims.
An estranged half-brother used Mellott's Social Security number on a W-2 form to avoid paying child support, then opened cable TV and wireless telephone service in his name but didn't pay the bills. The fiasco damaged more than Mellott's credit rating. It also threatened the renewal of his top-secret security clearance, and with it, his opportunity for promotion.
"Not only did my half-brother's actions tarnish my good name and adversely affect my credit history," Mellott told the House Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit Subcommittee last summer. "They might well have ended my 17- year naval career."
Mellott told the American Forces Press Service he was unaware that he'd been victimized until he received notice that his $5,000 tax refund had been sent to pay back child support. The notice said all future federal payments due him including his military pay would also be redirected to cover child support payments his half-brother actually owed. The nightmare got worse as Mellott's credit rating got dinged for debts accumulated by his half-brother's wife.
Like Mellott, retired Army Capt. John Harrison found himself tangled in the web of identify theft. Harrison told the Senate Banking Committee that the perpetrator, Jerry Wayne Phillips, conned Army officials at Fort Bragg, N.C., into issuing him an active-duty military identification card in Harrison's name in 2001. With access to Harrison's name and Social Security number, Phillips was able to quickly drive up more than $260,000 in debt.
"The military ID, combined with my once-excellent credit history, allowed Phillips to go on an unhindered spending spree lasting four months," Harrison told the committee. Phillips opened more than 60 fraudulent accounts in Harrison's name, got loans on two trucks and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, rented a house in Virginia and even purchased a timeshare in Hilton Head, S.C. all in Harrison's name.
The ultimate insult, Harrison said, came when Phillips wrote so many bad checks in his name to the Army and Air Force Exchange Service that the military began garnishing Harrison's retirement pay.
Identity theft is a growing crime nationwide, and the military is not immune. Social Security numbers used so commonly throughout the military to identity its members once made service members easy prey to identity thieves.
Five years ago, a task force of investigators from the Secret Service, Army Criminal Investigation Command, Naval Criminal Investigative Service and Air Force Office of Special Investigations focused on hundreds of credit cards opened in the names of top U.S. military officers, including more than 175 generals and admirals.
The task force's investigation led to the arrest of four people who had used 113 unauthorized credit card accounts -- some opened using names and Social Security numbers that had been published in the Federal Register -- to make $37,000 in Internet purchases.
Robert Carey, the Navy's deputy chief information officer, acknowledges that Social Security numbers may help novices commit identity theft. But he said skilled hackers can get the information they need to steal another's identity from the Internet within seconds even without a Social Security number. "If someone really wants your information, they can get it," Carey said.
While committing identity theft can take just minutes, victims often find themselves spending months even years to unravel the consequences. Harrison told the Senate Banking Committee he's invested more than 1,100 hours of his time defending himself and working to restore his credit and banking history. He said he's filled eight notebooks with more than 1,500 pages of documents and spent more than $1,500 in out-of-pocket expenses related to the crime.
Mellott said he spent two full weeks of leave using what he called his "aggressive aviator nature" to help clear his name and his credit record. Complicating the matter, he said, was that he was in "jurisdictional limbo" when he realized he'd been victimized: a California resident at the Naval War College in Rhode Island.
Military police wouldn't take his case because the perpetrator was a civilian. The local civilian police wouldn't take his case because Mellott lived on base, where they didn't have jurisdiction, and the perpetrator was thousands of miles away. Finally, a Naval Criminal Investigation Service agent stepped in, taking the report from Mellott that eventually led to his half-brother's arrest.
But nearly four years later, he said he still gets occasional debt collection notices related to the identity theft. "It's the crime that keeps on giving," he said.
The military has taken a wide range of steps to protect its members and their families from identity thieves.
Earlier this year, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service dropped the first five digits of each person's Social Security number from all hard-copy leave and earnings statements and checks to guard against identity theft.
The department put into place measures in the E-Government Act of 2001 that control what personal information gets posted on government Web sites. Carey said the law requires privacy impact assessments to ensure government agencies take steps to protect their people against identity thieves. "We don't want to physically hand (personal identifying information) to them," he said.
In addition, the Defense Department teamed up with the Federal Trade Commission to launch Military Sentinel. This online complaint network enables military members and DoD civilian employees to report identity theft and other consumer frauds.
Meanwhile, the services have launched far-reaching education campaigns.
The Army introduced a new distance learning training course in February to teach Web administrators what is and isn't permitted on publicly accessible Army Web sites and issued a "Hot Topics" brochure about identity theft. The Navy and Marine Corps have issued several alerts on the topic, all posted on their Web sites. A new Air Force public Internet site, expected to go live in the weeks ahead, will include identity theft and consumer fraud updates and preventive materials.
The bottom line, officials tell service members and DoD civilians, is to use caution in giving out personal identifying information. If they do become victimized, officials advise reporting it as quickly as possible to their chain of command, their legal assistance office and Military Sentinel.
After Mellott's experience with identity theft, he acknowledges that no one is immune. But he's adopted -- and encourages others to adopt what he calls "the fighter pilot's mantra: You never want to be the easy kill. Make them work for it."
Now a part-time volunteer counselor for the identity theft resource center that helped him through his ordeal, Mellott recommends these tips:
- Check your credit reports at least once a year. A good rule of thumb is to request a report from one of the three credit reporting agencies every four months to check for reports or activity that raise a "red flag."
- Buy a home shredder and shred all paperwork containing personal information before throwing it away.
- Keep track of your mailbox. Watch for bills for things you didn't buy or order and credit cards you didn't apply for. Likewise, take notice if you don't receive a bill you were expecting.
- Drop off bill payments at the post office or in a blue Postal Service mailbox. Leaving it in a mailbox at your home makes it easy for would-be identity thieves to steal.
- Go through your wallet and remove every piece of identification you don't absolutely need to carry, particularly if it has personal information on it.
- Ask to have your driver's license number changed if it includes your Social Security number.
- Notify your security office immediately if you become a victim of identity theft and provide copies of all related documents. This is particularly important if you have a security clearance, Mellott said.