A massive data breach at the federal Office of Personnel Management has exposed the Social Security numbers and personnel records of nearly every federal worker. The implications for federal employees, military service members and the intelligence community could be extraordinary.
But at a very basic level U.S. service members have been at high risk for identity theft for decades.
In the military your nine-digit service ID number is used for everything, whether you're checking out gym equipment or picking up your laundry. Since the late 1960s that number has been a service member’s Social Security number.
And while the military is trying to change that, it’s a long process. For many service members their Social Security number is still printed everywhere.
“Your dog tags, your medical records, your service records, any advancement exams that you take -- I have thousands of pieces of paper with my Social Security number on it," said Lindsay Church.
Church was a linguist in the Navy until three years ago. Now she’s a graduate student at the University of Washington. Shortly after she left the Navy, somebody broke into her car in front of her mother's house.
Former Navy linguist Lindsay Church at the University of Washington. (Photo: Patricia Murphy/KUOW)
“I thought the only thing that was stolen was my medication. Then I realized that my medical records were missing. They started opening new credit cards and opening new accounts and the police couldn’t help me. There was nothing they could do except give me the number of the credit bureau," Church said.
According to a report from the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft is the most common consumer complaint from military personnel and veterans. That’s what happened to Church.
Over the next year credit card bills showed up that weren’t hers -- a few hundred dollars at a time. Each time she had to call the company to sort it out.
Rick Forno is the assistant director of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County Center for Cyber Security. He said using Social Security numbers as a unique identifier isn't new.
But while many organizations have already scrubbed the numbers off forms and ID cards, the Department of Defense isn’t scheduled to finish doing that for seven more years. “That seems rather unreasonable in my view, given the importance of this issue to the DOD as an organization and everybody involved,” Forno said.
The Department of Defense wouldn’t do an interview for this story, but in a statement detailed the efforts it is making to protect service members’ identities. The statement says the government began removing printed Social Security numbers from ID cards in 2008 and plans to finish that process this month. But it will be the year 2022 before the numbers are fully removed from the cards’ bar codes, QR codes and magnetic strips.
To Forno, that’s too long.
“I would presume that if this were a critical issue to the military DOD that it would not take six or seven more years to make this happen. The DOD could accelerate this transition and do it in a much shorter time frame,” Forno said.
The Department of Defense says it’s issuing new military ID cards as the old ones expire. The cards will display a unique 10-digit DOD number instead of a Social Security number.
The Pentagon hopes that will reduce identity theft among service members. But it comes too late for Church and the more than 26,000 members of the Armed Forces who the FTC says had their identities stolen last year.
Church isn’t exactly sure how having her identity stolen has affected her credit rating.
"It feels so overwhelming that I’ve just pushed it off. I’m going to hate myself later for it but it’s just so frustrating how much worse can it get? It’s just overwhelming,” Church said.
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This story is part of the American Homefront Project, a collaboration of KUOW, KPCC and KUNC. The project reports on military life and veterans issues, covering major policy issues at the Pentagon and Veterans Administration, as well as the everyday issues that service members and veterans experience.