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Scams Target Veterans for Identity Theft

WASHINGTON (January 22, 2002) -- An e-mail circulating about a retiree who had his identity stolen after filing separation papers at a county courthouse is no urban legend, according to Transition Center officials.

Soldiers separating from the military are now being advised to ignore the old recommendation to file their military discharge papers - their DD Form 214 - with their local county courthouse. Instead, transition counselors are advising soldiers to safeguard their personal information to guard against credit fraud, said Deborah Snider, Transition Center personnel analyst at the U.S. Total Army Personnel Command.

Between 600,000 to 700,000 cases of identity theft were reported by the Federal Trade Commission in 2000. Identity theft is the fastest growing crime today, according to the FTC, and many victims don't find out that their personal information has been stolen until they are trying to buy a house or get a loan.

"I don't think anyone ever thought about this happening, which is the reason there are no provisions to 'unfile' records," Snider said. "This is a serious problem, and soldiers are a prime target because everything is tied to the soldiers' Social Security number."

The victims of identity theft suffer because the burden of proof is on them, Snider said. It is hard to believe that a person's life could be destroyed by this, she said, but it happens.

Common Link

A Navy retiree learned that someone had stolen his personal information and established credit in his name when he received a phone call from a clerk at American Express saying that someone was trying to cash a $9,000 check in his name. The clerk was suspicious and called the retiree because the address she had on file for him did not match the address on the check. After the retiree's case was investigated, he found out that a lawyer stole his identity. The lawyer also had a laptop with several thousand military names, Social Security numbers, and other information on it. The common link between the veterans on the list was that they had filed their DD 214s with their county courthouse.

To help guard against identity theft the Transition Center is no longer placing Social Security numbers on discharge and retirement certificates, Snider said. Nothing that might be hung for display will have a soldier's Social Security number on it.

When soldiers separate from active duty, Snider said the most vital document they receive is the DD 214. It contains their Social Security number, and birth date. In the past, soldiers were advised to file the form with their local courthouse to ensure that they would always be able to get a certified copy. They need a certified copy to receive any Veterans Administration benefits.

Once the DD 214 is filed at a local county courthouse, however, it becomes a public record. Some courthouses have put this information online, and even more plan to do so in the future, Snider said.

"Our recommendation is to safeguard the form as you would any vital papers such as a will, marriage license, or insurance papers," Snider said. "A safe deposit box would be a good investment."

Forty-six states now have identity theft laws, up from just three in 1996, according to the FTC. In addition, many state lawmakers are considering toughening laws already on the books.

Under a new Montana law that took affect in October 2001, the maximum penalty for identity theft involving more than $1,000 in gains is a $10,000 fine and 10 years in jail. In Missouri, identity theft is punishable by up to six months in jail for the first offense; up to one year in jail for the second offense; and one to five years imprisonment for the third or subsequent offense.

SOURCE: Army News Service via Veterans News and Information Service

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