Special to Military.com. This is part three in a series of three articles about identify theft and its effect on security clearance.
'Run silent. Run deep.' That's the preferred method of submarine operation when you're 'somewhere in the Pacific' on a boat that 'may or may not carry ballistic missiles.' But even underwater, news of identity theft travels fast.
Deep in the Pacific is where Stephen Hershman was in 2003 when he learned he'd lost his identity. He was at sea serving as the communications officer on the USS Kentucky, an Ohio-class missile sub. His job was extremely sensitive.
"The communications officer runs the radio operations of the ship making sure communications are received and sent properly. When you're sitting there awaiting an order to launch (missiles), you have to stay in constant communications," Hershman told idRADAR News.
You also have to maintain a Top Secret SCI security clearance. So Hershman knew he had a big problem when he received an urgent message to contact his wife after the sub surfaced.
"(When we) surfaced the submarine, I got on a satellite phone to call my wife and see what was wrong. She had a general Power of Attorney to act on my behalf but police wouldn't talk to her. She couldn't do anything," he recalled. That's when he learned someone else was using his identity.
"(The thieves) opened nine cell phone accounts in my name. Luckily Sprint called my wife to ask how I liked the service," he recalled. "She said, 'He's underwater in the Pacific Ocean somewhere so he's probably not opening cell phone accounts.'"
Hershman was 23 at the time and unfamiliar with the issue. "I didn't know anyone who had been a victim of identity theft." He wasn't sure how anyone could have claimed his identity but he developed a few theories.
"Right before we left (to go on tour) we did a lot of cleaning. I cleaned out my office and threw out a ton of stuff that I would never dream of doing now," said Hershman who now owns The Shred Stop, a document shredding company. "I don't know how ID thieves targeted our house specifically. It's my best guess that that's how they got my info. The first thing they did was open a PO box in my name. We know one of the things they used to open the account was a recent utility bill."
It was not easy to get leave to fly home and battle identity theft but Hershman left the Kentucky at Pearl Harbor and flew back to the Pacific Northwest. His real battle was just beginning and would prove incredibly time consuming to clean up.
"It was hundreds of hours that I spent. Maybe things are different now. At the time, the people who had stolen my identity were in Jacksonville, FL. The police in Jacksonville wouldn't talk to me. My sheriff in Seattle wasn't thrilled about having to deal with it. Eventually Comcast called and said someone is trying to set up cable at X address. They asked if that was me so I called the Jacksonville Police to give them an address," he remembered.
The lack of cooperation Hershman encountered was concerning. He said the Jacksonville PD did a drive-by and reported back that nothing looked suspicious from the street! His frustration level soared and he knew the damage could hit his Top Secret rating.
"Your security clearance is your life blood in the military," he stressed. "I had top secret SCI clearance. Just being an officer on a naval submarine--even your location is classified. If I had lost it, I would have been doing mundane paper work at best. Might not have been able to go out on a boat."
Hershman's story is a rarity in the world of identity theft—one with a (somewhat) happy ending—thanks to his rapid response to the threat.
"I never lost my clearance. I caught it before the people who stole my identity had any chance to damage my credit score," he said but the battle took several years before he felt he was completely back in control of his own identity. He developed quite a knowledge base as he documented his ID theft.
Millions hold these critical clearances
An estimated 4 to 5 million Americans hold a security clearance necessary for their work. While more than half these workers are connected with the military, many are government contractors or work for other agencies like Energy and Treasury. Attorney Alan Edmunds has represented both military and civilian clients around the country for 30 years and he's argued cases frequently before the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA). In every case, he sees the value of documenting your efforts as Hershman did.
"Judges in DOHA don't recognize it unless it's documented. They want the person to report to all three credit bureaus that there has been identity theft," Edmunds said. He gives the same advice for any credit bureau reporting errors. "The government says if you have foreclosures or you have credit problems, you're a risk to national security."
Debt of any sort—whether run up by you or your identity thief—can tank your credit score and that is a automatic red flag. Identity theft expert John Sileo sees military folks as an especially high-risk population.
"I spent more than a year speaking at military bases around the US to help soldiers understand how important it is for them to protect their identities. When our soldiers are trying to cope with the financial and emotional strains of ID theft, they aren't doing their job, which is protecting our country. In addition, compromised identities make for easy blackmail, court-martial and AWOL claims," Sileo said.
A Memorial Day report by idRADAR News illustrated the many extra challenges facing military members that can trigger identity theft. One common issue is the difficulty in monitoring financial accounts and credit bureau files when you're on assignment. Add to this the recent hacking attempts that have hit the US Veteran's Administration and the risks rise even higher.
From this challenge, a new way to thwart thieves
An engineer by training, Hershman separated from the Navy in 2005. While his brush with identity theft was primarily financial and didn't do lasting damage to his military career, it left a lasting impression. He left the service with a new view on identity protection. He now had a new 'hobby' too.
"I started shredding everything with my name on it," he said. "I burned through five home shredders in the next few years from 2004 to 2007. When I (destroyed) the last one, I got so frustrated."
That's when the idea of The Shred Stop was born. Hershman opened his first kiosk-based shredding operating in 2009. Since that time, an additional 18 have been added at high traffic locations in the Pacific Northwest. Safeway hosts a number of machines in Seattle and Portland. In August 2013, San Francisco locations are scheduled to come online too. The devices will shred CD's, quarters, floppy disks, checkbooks with spines and other thick files. One swipe of a credit card starts the process and it costs $2.50 per minute. He claims you can shred 50 pounds of material in five minutes flat.
"That's why we target being in grocery stores. It's in the workflow of regular errands. Safeway was our first national chain partner," he said. Surprisingly, the loud sounds associated with a home shredder aren't a factor with his kiosks.
"It's nearly silent. You can't hear it from three feet away. One customer observed that we might attract more customers if we made it a little louder."
As an identity theft victim, this approach was key for Hershman--holding onto his documents until they were reduced to tiny bits.
"I wanted to retain the chain of custody of my material from my hand to destroyed." That meant he wouldn't give any company a box of documents to shred; he wanted to witness the destruction. He also didn't want to debate who owned the documents or the data on them before they had been shredded.
"When you put your trash on the curb, it becomes public property. If the police were standing there and saw someone going through it, they probably wouldn't do anything," he said. "It shocked me when I learned that."
Now at age 35, he uses multiple passwords, changes them often, employs a locked mailbox and checks his credit reports annually trying to stagger his free access but checking one bureau every few months.
"It's always shocking to me how different the information the (three) credit agencies have. They really don't like being told they're wrong and you have to prove beyond any doubt that they're wrong."
As an entrepreneur, Hershman has had a unique opportunity to study the demographics of privacy concerns. His average customer is 45 to 50 years old. The 'under 30' set doesn't seem to grasp the challenges of data control.
"We see very few customers in their 20's. They feel invulnerable at that age. People that are 30 or younger feel if it's not on Facebook, it didn't happen," he observed. "I don't put a lot of information online."
His advice to members of the military is more strongly worded.
"You have something to lose a lot faster than other people. For a lot of people that security clearance is a ticket to a really good job later. You don't want to explain to possible employers a break in your clearance," he said.
Even a temporary suspension of that clearance could impact your employment options so Hershman advises that you shred everything and monitor your files constantly. Better yet, don't give would-be thieves any opening to get their hands on your data. He believes a few simple preventative measures could make identity thieves look elsewhere for easier targets.
"If there's a mailbox next to yours that isn't locked, all the more reason to get a locked one," he pointed out.