ID theft serious threat to military members

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- When many of us think of theft, we imagine ski masks and armed gunmen. Unfortunately, there is another group of thieves armed with pre-approved credit cards or social security cards that can do much more damage. Identity thieves steal personal information and use it to wreak havoc.

These thieves can obtain credit cards or cellular phone service and run up thousands of dollars of charges. They can even get a job or obtain loans and mortgages in someone else's name. In the meanwhile, an innocent person's credit is destroyed and he or she is responsible for cleaning up the mess the thieves have left.

As many as 2.2 million active duty personnel, National Guard and Reserve members were put at risk for identity theft after a burglary of the Veterans Association in May of this year.

Military Members stationed at Luke Air Force Base are at further risk because the Phoenix area has the highest rate of identity theft in the nation. One in six adults in Arizona has had their identity stolen within the last five years, which is about twice the national rate.

Common ways that thieves obtain personal information include: breaking into community mailboxes, using a change of address form to send bills to another address, stealing personal information from homes, stealing mail, wallets or purses, rummaging through trash looking for bills with personal information, skimming, which is stealing a credit or debit card number by copying it using a special device, and phishing, which is sending out spam or pop-up messages to get personal information.

Arizona was one of the first states to take action and enact legislation to deal with the identity theft crises. Imposing harsher penalties has decreased identity theft in Arizona in recent years. People can reduce the risk of identity theft by shredding documents before throwing them away and opting out of prescreened credit cards by calling (888) 5-OPTOUT or visit www. optoutprescreen.com.

It is also important to avoid giving out social security numbers and to check credit reports regularly to see if there is any unusual activity. Active-duty military members can further protect themselves against identity theft by placing an "active-duty alert" on their credit report. Creditors will then have to verify identity before granting credit.

To place an active-duty alert on credit report, contact one of the following nationwide reporting companies: Equifax at (800) 525-6285 or www. equifax.com; Experian at (888) EXPERIAN or www. experian.com; or TransUnion at (800) 680-7289 or www.transunion.com.

Being aware of common signs of identity theft can help detect a problem early and correct it before it destroys credit. Watch for cards arriving that were not applied for, bills not arriving, or businesses calling regarding unwanted items or services you didn't order. You may also be denied credit or receive a high interest rate with no explanation.

If you suspect you have become a victim of identity theft, take the following five steps to restore your credit:

Five steps to restoring credit for victims of identity theft:

1. Contact Equifax, Experian or Trans Union to place a fraud alert on your credit report. After placing the fraud alert, obtain a free copy of your credit report and examine it to make sure there are no accounts you didn't open or debts you can't explain. If you find any information you didn't expect to see, contact the consumer reporting company and the business that provided them with the fraudulent information.

2. Close accounts that have been tampered with or that were fraudulently opened. Notify someone in the security or fraud departments of each business by sending a letter by certified mail. When you open new accounts, do not use the same password and avoid using a password that might be easily determined, such as your birthday. If there have been fraudulent charges made on your account, ask for the company's fraud dispute forms. Once you have resolved any fraud dispute, ask the company to send you a letter recognizing that the issues have been resolved.

3. File a report with the local police department where the identity theft took place.

4. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by filling out the online complaint form found at https://rn.ftc.gov/pls/dod, or call the Identity Theft Hotline at (877) ID-THEFT.

5. If problems with identity theft persist, the Social Security Administration may issue a new Social Security Number if requested. If you have become a victim of identity theft and need further assistance, call the Luke legal office at (623) 856-6901.