Guard Against ID Theft While Deployed
I'm in the Army and am about to be deployed to Iraq. Should I put an active-duty alert on my credit report?
That's a great idea. An active-duty alert can help protect you from identity theft, which is particularly important while you're deployed and have a tough time monitoring your mail and accounts.
The active-duty alert notifies creditors that you're on military active duty and asks them to take extra precautions to verify the identity of the applicant before extending credit. Include the phone number of a trusted friend or family member for creditors to call and verify your identity while you're inaccessible (and give them a heads up).
This alert stays on the credit file for one year and also lets you opt out of promotional mail for two years -- such as pre-approved credit-card offers that could leave you susceptible to ID theft while you're away from home. To place an active-duty alert, contact one of the three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax or TransUnion), which will notify the other two. You'll generally find the information in the section of the bureaus' Web sites that focuses on fraud alerts.
The alert is free and will not affect your ability to use credit while you're deployed. It just helps to prevent ID thieves from taking out new credit in your name. "At a bare minimum, anybody who is away from his active-duty station should place this alert on his record," says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "It's extra protection, and there's no downside to it."
If you'd like even more protection, consider a credit freeze. It tends to cost $10 per bureau ($30 for all three) to place and lift a credit freeze, but it does prevent potential creditors from accessing your credit report without your permission.
The active-duty alert and credit freeze, however, don't prevent thieves from stealing the numbers of cards you already have. "A credit report is not involved when an existing credit card is used, so an alert on the file would not be able to help," says Maxine Sweet of Experian.
She recommends signing up for credit-file monitoring, which lets you know via e-mail whenever there's an inquiry to your file, new account being reported, or a missed payment being reported. These services do cost, however: Experian and TransUnion charge $14.95 per month for services that monitor your credit report every day at all three bureaus.
You can do some monitoring on your own. You can get one free credit report from each of the bureaus at AnnualCreditReport.com -- stagger your requests so you get one report every four months. If you have trouble ordering your report while deployed, see my Credit Report Access Denied column for other ways to access your report from a foreign country.
Also review your credit-card and bank accounts online if possible while deployed, or consider having a trusted family member or friend monitor the accounts while you're gone. But be very careful about whom you choose. "It is not unusual for a family member or close associate to use existing credit accounts or commit new account fraud, especially when someone is out of the country and vulnerable with little visibility to fraudulent activity," says Sweet.
Also warn your family members of ID theft scams that target the relatives at home. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission discovered a scam in which an ID thief calls family members claiming to be from the Red Cross and tells them that their relative has been injured in Iraq. The caller says that certain paperwork must be completed and personal information verified before providing any more details. It's a ploy by an ID thief to gather enough personal information to open accounts in your name.
Before you leave for Iraq, let your family know exactly how they'll be contacted if anything happens to you and whom they can call with questions. Also review the information at SaveandInvest.org, which was created by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation to protect military families from investment fraud.
I'd love to hear about other military families' experiences with ID theft pitches or other types of fraud. Please e-mail me your story so I can share it with our readers.
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