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An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

By: Kristan Frend

Last week I came across a news article that said the NYPD arrested 26 people who allegedly took at least $5 million from stealing identities. What I found most disturbing was that criminals allegedly affected more than 200 soldiers, including many of whom were unaware of what was happening, since they were serving overseas.

To help reduce the risk of identity theft and minimize fraud losses, all three major credit bureaus provide Active- Duty Alerts, which allow deployed soldiers to have their credit frozen while they are overseas. While these fraud alerts, coupled with financial institutions implementing identity theft programs,  can help prevent identity theft losses, what is being done to reduce the risk of military personnel data being exposed and stolen?

As social security numbers play a key role in identity theft, I was surprised and disturbed to learn that government issued military ID cards include the card holder’s social security number in full on the front.  This creates an obvious security vulnerability to the card holder. Especially considering that the military ID card must be shown in a number of situations, such as getting on and off base, medical care, picking up prescriptions, entering a base shopping exchange, mess hall, etc.  There are many situations where the service member encounters people in positions that were once filled by military personnel but are now filled by civilians, who may not have the same code of honor toward others in the military community.

While it’s true that thieves are increasingly using computer hacking, phishing, malware, spyware and key stroke loggers to gather SSNs, thieves still resort to low-tech methods like dumpster diving, mail tampering, and purse and wallet theft to obtain privacy sensitive information.  The need to show ID so often and the fact that it contains all of their pertinent data, puts service members at particular risk when they may be in harm’s way, focused more on missions than money missing from their bank account.

The good news is that the Department of Defense launched a Social Security Number reduction initiative consisting of a phased removal of SSNs. Phase one, removal of dependent SSNs from ID cards is underway. Phase two, removal of printed SSNs from all cards has been placed on hold indefinitely, and phase three, removal of SSNs embedded in barcodes will begin in 2012.

My point is not to be critical of the use of SSNs; I think we all can agree that the use of SSNs have become an integral part of our culture.  However, we should look to see that organizations carefully balance the value of how SSNs are used with the vulnerabilities that its use creates.

The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” could never be truer than with identity theft. The easiest way to minimize fraud is to avoid it by not giving criminals the opportunity to perpetrate identity theft against individuals.