It is a cruel irony that service members who defend our country by fighting abroad are often most at risk from the threat of identity theft at home. Frequent deployments, relocation and the unique demands of military life create vulnerabilities for fraudsters to exploit, and military personnel can remain unaware that they have been targeted long after a crime has been perpetrated.
Further adding to the difficulties faced by service members and veterans is the continued practice by the military of overusing full Social Security numbers and putting personal identity information at risk. According to a report this year from several professors at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., the military culture’s well-known mandate of widespread Social Security disclosure must be changed and enforced at all levels if identity theft is to be minimized as a serious problem.
How big is this problem? According to Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, of the more than 100 million personal records lost or stolen in 2006 alone, nearly one third were for active and retired military personnel whose data was stored at a Veteran Affairs office. Just this month, Tricare, the managed care arm of the government’s military health system, disclosed that a contractor had lost backup tapes containing personally identifiable information of about 4.9 million people. The tapes contained data from electronic health records used at military hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies in the San Antonio area from 1992 until September 2011.
Identity theft is a serious concern for anyone, but when it affects deployed military personnel, identity theft can directly impact combat readiness. Service members abroad become distracted trying to correct a personal crisis that can have financial and professional consequences for their military careers, and their distraction indirectly affects the nation’s defenses as a whole. This issue also compounds the difficulties already faced by overburdened military families, including identity theft that occurs after a service member’s death.
Military privacy advocates have lobbied the Department of Defense for years to limit its usage of Social Security numbers, and their efforts have begun to pay off. Pentagon officials claim that efforts to better protect troops’ personal information have been underway for years, and new DOD identity cards will no longer feature Social Security numbers.
Until the military can ensure stronger privacy protection, service members, military officials and veterans should take great efforts to defend themselves from fraud by enrolling in identity theft protection that will fight for them as much as they have fought for us.