After being among more than 21.5 million victims of a massive data breach affecting the Office of Personnel Management in 2015, Navy reservist Jeff Chin had to deal with massive, long-term headaches.
His social security number was used to create fake IDs and open accounts in his name, which affected his credit score. His daughter, a minor at the time of the breach, also had her social security number stolen, with much of the same consequences.
“It’s an issue that I had to contend with for many years,” said Chin, executive director of Blue Star Families of New England.
Data breaches affecting government agencies include a great deal more sensitive information than those affecting retailers, which is one of the many reasons military families are at higher risk for identity theft, said Hilary Donnell, head of partnerships and public affairs for the digital security company Aura.
Forty percent of military families reported having experienced online crime, compared to 26% of non-military families, according to Aura/Harris Poll data from September. The number increased to 62% for military families who went through permanent change of station moves in the past three years.
Military families are targeted because of their benefits, and are especially at risk when benefits are expanded, such as when the PACT Act went into law in 2022, Donnell said. It’s also more difficult for individuals to monitor bank and other financial statements during deployments and moves.
“It’s not anything that military families are doing, or not doing, that puts them at higher risk,” she said. “It’s just the nature of military life.”
Awareness is the No. 1 protective factor against ID theft, Chin and Donnell said.
Everyone should take advantage of free access to credit reports, now available weekly from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, the nation’s three largest credit bureaus. People can freeze their credit reports if they suspect their information was stolen, Chin said.
It’s important to be careful on social media, Donnell said.
According to data from Aura/Ipsos, 22% of military members who were victims of online crime had their social media accounts set to public. People should set their accounts to private and be mindful of what they post, she said.
“You shouldn’t be posting things that could be indicators of your password. You shouldn’t be sharing things that would let people know where you live or what school your kids are going to.”
People also should be careful about connecting to public Wi-Fi and use a VPN connection whenever possible, she added.
Additionally, digital payment apps like Venmo, Zelle and PayPal can be used to scam military service members, such as when fake landlords ask for deposits for nonexistent rentals, according to a recent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report.
Members of the military can set up active duty alerts on credit reports for up to a year. They also should be conscientious of documents containing private information, Chin added.
“Don’t leave them behind with family members. Make sure you shred as you move,” he said.
Everyone should be careful when responding to unexpected emails or text messages, and never click on unknown links or attachments. Also, create strong passwords, Donnell advised.
“I highly recommend a password manager. They can require a lot of effort to set up, but once you set them up, they make your life so much easier.”
Just like Chin’s daughter, one in 50 children have been impacted by ID theft, according to data from Javelin Strategy & Research. People should begin monitoring their children’s social security numbers, ideally before they turn 16, Donnell said.
“That way, you have an opportunity to dispute any potential fraud that’s on that credit report at least by the time they turn 18 and are either applying for their first job or applying for college.”Read comments