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Robbery provokes identity theft measures

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- Documents containing personal information were stolen from the home of a Department of Veterans Affairs employee in May, representing the largest unauthorized release of social security numbers in United States history.

The electronic data files contained the names, birth dates and social security numbers of about 26.5 million service members and veterans.

"The veterans affected include members discharged after 1975 as well as spouses and some veterans discharged even earlier who submitted a claim for VA benefits," said Maj. Katherine Oler, U.S. Air Forces in Europe legal office lawyer.

"Although there is no indication that this information has been used fraudulently or that any financial information has been assessed, a member's social security number can often serve as a thief's stepping stone to important personal financial information."

According to a 2006 Better Business Bureau study, 8.9 million people have been victims of identity fraud, resulting in $56.6 billion in losses in 2006. This sets the stage for larger numbers than 2005, which saw 9.3 million victims.

"One in four U.S. households has been the victim of identity theft in the past five years," said Major Oler. "The Federal Trade Commission notes that 13.3 people become the victims of identity theft every minute."

Military members should take steps to protect their personal and financial information. "It is far easier to take steps to prevent identity theft than to address the problem after the fact," said Major Oler. "Monitoring accounts online is the best way to detect fraud early."

The three national credit-reporting agencies also provide fraud alerts to those who report potential identity theft. The companies, Equifax, TransUnion and Experian, are required by federal law to notify each other if they receive an alert.

"Once the member creates the fraud alert to one company, that company is required to let the other two know," said Major Oler. "The company will also provide a free credit report.

"Military members should review this report to ensure all their financial information is accurate," she said. "Reviewing these reports also helps identify unauthorized accounts or activities."

Credit reports can be obtained anytime by calling 1-877-322-8228 or by completing the Annual Credit Report request form available at www.ftc.gov/credit and mailing it to Annual Credit Report Requesting Service, P.O. Box 10528, Atlanta, Ga., 30348-5281. For further information, contact the base legal office. (Information for this article was compiled from the USAFE legal office, the Equifax and USAA Web sites.)

If you believe you are the victim of identity theft:
1. Immediately contact the financial institution.
2. Close all affected accounts.
3. Contact the local office of special invesigations.
4. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
5. Place a fraud alert on consumer report.