Commander Frank Mellott was enjoying the first time off he?d had after back-to-back tours and three overseas deployments, when his wife walked in and said, "I think we have a problem."
She was holding a letter from the Department of Treasury, telling him his 2000 federal tax refund had been redirected to pay child support, and that all future federal payments would be redirected as well.
"My wife looked at me and said, 'Is there something you want to tell me?'"
Mellott didn't owe child support. His half-brother took Mellott's Social Security number more than a year before.
Last year, 8.9 million Americans were victims of ID theft, at a cost of $56.5 million, according to a report co-released by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Strategy & Research. For members of the military, the results can be disastrous.
The crime put Mellott -- now the Executive Officer at Naval Air Station Lemoore in Lemoore, Calif. -- in grave danger of losing his security clearance. At the time, the Navy was reviewing Mellott's background, something routinely done every five years. A blemished credit record would have been grounds to yank his clearance, effectively ending his 15-year military career.
"If I don't have a clearance, I can't fly airplanes. If I can't fly airplanes, I'm done," Mellott said. Luckily for Mellott, 44, investigators reviewed his finances before his records were merged with his half-brother's -- giving Mellott two wives, three aliases, more than 15 bad debts and about 40 addresses. Mellott has since cleared his record. But the fight was costly.
He'd intended to spend his vacation concentrating on family. Instead, he spent it gathering the evidence that led to his half-brother's arrest in California.
"Can you imagine trying to resolve this from a ship, 11 time zones away?" Mellott asked. "Who is that soldier's advocate?"
Credit reporting agencies and others are not set up to help military families deal with this crime, Mellott said. He had to fight to even file a police report: California police wouldn't take a report because Mellott lived in Rhode Island; local police wouldn't take a report because Mellott lived on a naval base.
Mellott had to call in a favor to get federal agents to take a report. But, even though he placed a temporary fraud alert on his credit, he couldn't issue a permanent alert.
"For that, you need a permanent address and phone number," Mellott said. Mellott, like most military families, doesn't have that.
Deployed military may now place 'active duty' alerts on their files. The alerts, which are effective for one year, require businesses to verify applicants' identities before issuing credit. They are, Mellott said, "a first step."
But military remain vulnerable to identity theft on numerous fronts. The DoD has printed Social Security numbers on military ID cards since 1967, and everyone over the age of 10 has one, said Kathy Moakler, a military spouse and spokeswoman for the National Military Family Association.
Moakler's card has her husband's and her Social Security numbers, her birthdate, height, weight, hair color, eye color and photo. She laughed. "It's got everything but my blood type."
Last month, President Bush signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which directs the DoD to study the feasibility of removing Social Security numbers from military ID cards. The DoD?s recommendations are due next spring.
If Mellott could make that change, he would. However, such a change would not protect military personnel whose Social Security numbers reside in computer networks nationwide. Data breaches reported since February 2005 have exposed almost 2.9 million current and former members of the military to identity theft, according to data compiled by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer organization based in California.
"This is the crime that keeps on giving," Mellott said. "If someone breaks into your house, you can change your locks. Once someone has your Social Security number, they have your key forever."
To protect their identities, military personnel should consider: drafting powers of attorney for financial issues, including identity theft. And in the case of deployment, servicmembers should use active duty alerts and padlock their credit with IDFreeze -- a suite of tools that empowers consumers to control their credit.
For more information on identity theft and IDFreeze, go to http://military.trustedid.com/