Beaufort News

Study: Troops face high risk of identity theft

U.S. troops are among the Americans most vulnerable to identify theft -- and the military is doing little to protect them, a new study claims.

By requiring service members to provide their Social Security numbers as part of routine tasks, the military is exposing them to an increased risk of identity theft, according to a report released last month by several professors at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

"The systematic leaks of personal information in day-to-day operations, and a pervasive attitude of disregard for personal privacy is unsettling," the report said. "The military culture is one of widespread compulsory Social Security number disclosure."

The authors are specifically concerned about the use of birth dates and Social Security numbers on travel orders and military ID cards and the requirement that troops stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other foreign posts provide their Social Security numbers to cash personal checks, the report said.

Troops also are required to write the last four digits of their Social Security numbers on laundry bags and when signing in at gyms, Internet cafès and recreational facilities, researchers found.

Social Security numbers are valued by would-be identity thieves because they often serve as identifiers when dealing with banks and credit card companies.

Researchers aren't the only ones concerned about the military's overuse of Social Security numbers.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson was recently appointed chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, and said the panel will review the study's findings.

"In the past, the subcommittee has looked at the issue of protecting servicemember identities by reducing the use of SSNs," said Wilson, whose district includes Beaufort County. "The subcommittee intends to study the West Point report thoroughly in order to ensure the identities of the members are kept private. Protecting service members' identities has been a subcommittee interest before and will remain so under my chairmanship."

The potential problems stemming from identity theft are particularly great for deployed troops, the report found.

"The problem is magnified when an individual is deployed," the study said, "allowing much damage to occur without their knowledge, or if known, serves to place additional stress on already strained families. ... (Our) Social Security number and date of birth are meant to be with us for life. Thus, disclosure of this information places us at risk for life."

Social Security numbers were used in 32 percent of identity thefts in 2009, according to Javelin Strategy and Research, which tracks identity theft.

To protect troops, researchers suggest the military replace Social Security numbers with a new military ID number, which "accomplishes the same goals as today's widespread use of the Social Security number, but without the risks associated with the widespread disclosure."

Representatives for the military told the New York Times that they are aware of the problem and are taking steps to address it. Those representatives said Social Security numbers would no longer appear on new military ID cards as of May.

The New York Times contributed to this report.