Although the military no longer puts the Social Security numbers of soldiers on their identity cards and their clothing, the nation's armed forces still have a long way to catch up with concerns over identity theft involving the people who protect us, according to Suzanne Klenk, a financial educator at a Washington state-based credit union.
"The military does a really crappy job of protecting their information, but they're getting better," Klenk, 49, says.
The community relations coordinator at the Washington State Employees Credit Union knows what she's talking about because she served in the military and became a victim of identity theft when someone stole a laptop computer containing the personal information of thousands of soldiers.
Members of the military are often more vulnerable to identity theft because they live in shared quarters where there isn't much privacy and they're often away from home for long periods of time, marking it hard for them to monitor their financial affairs. Since many recruits are younger, they aren't worried about their credit scores, either. Others also place their trust in family members and friends who may not have their best interests at heart, Klenk says.
Another factor that makes the issue more complicated is that not all ID thieves want to steal money, according to Klenk. Some steal personal information because they have a criminal record or poor credit and just want to apply for a job or get medical care.
Despite the obstacles they face, there are simple steps people in the armed forces can take to protect themselves, experts say.
There may not be much privacy in military barracks, but recruits shouldn't tempt fate by not putting their documents in a safe place, either. If their base offers safe deposit boxes, as many do, they should keep papers there, Klenk says.
LIMIT POWER OF ATTORNEY:
While it's important to choose someone they trust to handle their affairs while they're gone, that doesn't mean they have access to everything, according to Privacy Journal Publisher Robert Ellis Smith.
"People should know that the power of attorney can be severely limited if you wish. I would recommend that people confine power of attorney to the transactions that they want," Smith says.
AVOID SOCIAL MEDIA:
This may be one of the hardest steps for millennials because many mention everything they do on Facebook or Instagram. Such oversharing can lead to trouble, says Robert Siciliano at bestidtheftcompanys.com, because it lets outsiders know where they're posted, when they're away from home and who their family members are.
"They just really need to refrain from posting anything on social media," Siciliano says.
SPLIT UP INFORMATION:
If a soldier absolutely has to send credit card information via e-mail, she should split it in two, Smith says. For example, send the card number one day and the expiration date, the next. Most hackers don't want to wait for a second e-mail because it's too much work.
ENGAGE IN SAFE WIRELESS USAGE:
Don't connect to a public wireless network without a virtual private network and a hot spot shield that encrypts data. "Not having it is wreckless," Siciliano says.
FREEZING YOUR CREDIT:
It never hurts to check your credit every six months and have an active duty alert put on all your accounts when you're deployed, but that protection only lasts a year. That's why Siciliano urges people to freeze their credit so a bank will have to contact them for approval of any credit related activity. That way, identity thieves won't be able to do anything even if they do have your personal information.
As Siciliano puts it, "What you want to do is make [your personal information] useless to a criminal. The way to make it useless is to get a credit freeze."
It's one thing for a soldier to know how to protect his identity, it's another for him to understand why it's important, Klenk says.
"The challenge for the military is to educate them on privacy [because] there is no such thing as privacy with this generation. They freely give out everything."