It's noon on a Thursday. So far today, I've rattled off my husband's Social Security number more than 10 times -- in a doctor's office ironing out insurance issues, in a packed administration building, standing in a CVS trying to get a prescription filled, and countless times over the phone for various military-related issues. It's just a normal Thursday. This is just business as usual.
I think less of the fact that later that day, the pizza place asks me for the "secret code" on the back of my credit card as they take down our order for delivery. "Secret" is a joke, right? I'm sure they're writing it down someplace super safe ... definitely not on a piece of paper while taking my order and then just tossing it in the trash afterward.
I really do try to be careful. Not only do I not have enough money for anyone to really steal, but my husband is in cyber security. He's the annoying person who insists I change all my passwords every 60 days. He comes up with cockamamie new ones that have symbols, capitals and numbers, and are downright impossible to figure out. (Or remember.)
All things considered, I thought we were pretty safe.
And then 2014 happened.
It started in February. Bill stopped at a McDonald's in Miami on the way home from drill. Two weeks later, someone in Orlando had rung up over a thousand dollars in charges on our card -- the same one he used to buy that fateful coffee. We called the bank, they refunded the money as quickly as they could. These things happen, we laughed. New cards, move on.
So we did as we were told. We changed passwords, got new cards, moved on.
March: A few hundred dollars disappeared on a different card someplace in the far reaches of upstate New York. Again, we called the bank. Again, we changed passwords, got new cards. This time, we had our computers scrubbed too, just in case there was some bad-news tech bear there making trouble. Computers clean, new lockdown in place, we laughed. Twice in two months! Crazy!
April: Several thousand at an outlet mall in Texas. Paid for in debit cards and checks.
May: A utility bill taken out in our names in Pittsburgh. We've never even been to Pittsburgh.
While some stranger was busy spending our hard-earned cash, we were hitting financial panic. Our savings account was drained. Every bank refund took close to a week to come through. Mortgage payments were made with six dollars left in the account as we waited for refunds. Bills were scraped together. We had to borrow money from family members. It was frustrating, terrifying, stressful and embarrassing.
And while we think we have that one, initial McDonald's experience to blame, we're still not sure how it happened. But we are sure that we became the victims of a really lousy identity theft.
And we weren't alone. According to a report by the Federal Trade Commission, military families report identity theft at twice the rate of civilians.
Is it because we're so used to throwing our Social Security numbers out there that we don't think anything of it, like U.S. News posits? Or maybe identity thieves are smart and realize we've got a steady paycheck they can count on?
Barely a year after we got our own financial situation straightened out, nine people plead guilty in a $20 million identity theft scam specifically targeting our military.
And while the threat for our community is greater than for our civilian counterparts, it's the repercussions that are almost more terrifying. Many of our spouses' jobs rely on security clearances, and -- gulp -- when your credit is in the tank, those aren't smooth sailing. While we were overwhelmed by the severity of our financial situation, how it could play out at work was downright terrifying.
Because it happens to us at an alarming rate, it's important that we, as a military community, do whatever we can to prevent identity thieves from preying on us.
Related story: 10 tips to protect yourself from identity theft
1. Be proactive. Check your credit reports regularly. When your spouse is deployed, make sure you set up an "Active Duty Alert." This will help ensure that any unusual spending during a deployment is noted, watched and dealt with immediately.
2. Be protective. Don't be like me. Don't repeat your sponsor's social 10 times to a receptionist who is only halfway listening in a crowded hospital room. Of course, the likelihood that an evildoer is listening is low. But if a thief is after your information, don't make getting it easier than it could be.
3. Be possessive. When people ask for your information, ask them why they need it. At doctor's offices, it seems self-explanatory that they need that Social; it's your insurance number, for all intents and purposes. But it doesn't need to be scrawled across every piece of paper with your child's name on it. Remind staff that because you're military, that insurance number isn't just a generic number -- it's a Social Security number and it needs to be protected.
If you suspect that you are a victim of identity theft, or that your service member might be, make sure his command is alerted in addition to the banks and credit reporting agencies. If there's a security clearance in your spouse's future, make sure the red flag is raised on the identity theft well in advance. While you can issue a fraud alert on your credit reports, navigating the administrative and legal channels for identity theft is arduous and never immediate.
Whether you elect to use a service to make monitoring your credit easy or simply vow to regularly do so yourself, make sure your information is kept on lockdown and distributed as little as possible. If identity theft affects us at twice the rate as civilians, it's our job to be twice as careful.
Even if you still have to say your spouse's Social Security number out loud 10 times on a Thursday. Before noon.