MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. -- When I came home from Christmas leave, I had a strange and disturbing letter in the mail from TriWest Healthcare Alliance. They wanted to let me know that there had been a break-in at one of their offices in Phoenix and several computers, with all the files still on them, were stolen.
The letter indicated that my and my wife's personal information was on those computers, including our social security numbers and all the rest of the information we gave when enrolling in TRICARE. Oh, and there are more than 500,000 military personnel and family members who are in the same boat we are, and all of us are at risk of identity theft.
My wife and I talked about it, and no matter how we tried to put a good spin on things (such as maybe an unexpected sun flare caused a major magnetic field to hit the area and erased all the hard-drives), it still made us mad. Our credit isn't perfect as it is, and the idea of somebody using our information to obtain credit cards and stick us with multi-thousand dollar bills is outrageous.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft headed the top 10 consumer fraud complaints in 2001, causing two major bills to be proposed to Congress in 2002 to assist victims and increase the penalties for perpetrators. Which just tells me that the threat of having our identities stolen is a very real one.
There are, however, things that can be done to protect against unauthorized use of your credit information.
TriWest, the FTC and a few websites online that help with identity theft say that the first thing to remember is to keep a record of everything you do, so you have proof that all appropriate actions were taken in case an actual theft occurs. Once that is firmly embedded into your mind, contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus.
You can request a "fraud alert" be placed in your file along with a statement asking creditors to call you prior to opening any new account or changing your existing accounts. That way, when you get a call asking for verification on that new Visa Platinum card with a $100,000 credit limit to be sent to an address somewhere in the Florida Keys, you'll have a good idea someone out there is trying to use your information.
Get a copy of your credit report. It may cost a little bit of money to obtain reports from each of the credit bureaus, but that report can show you every account associated with your name and social security number. If you find any accounts that you didn't open, or see one of your accounts has been tampered with, then close or suspend them immediately.
Also, file a police report with the local police or with the police in the city or community where the identity theft took place. It's more proof that it wasn't you who bought that Mustang convertible on a Visa Platinum down in Miami, and it gets the ball rolling to capture and prosecute the offender.
Action is a must when you are at risk of identity theft, as you can and will be held responsible for what a thief does with your information. Without documentation showing you are the victim, any bills accrued will land at your feet, with creditors and lawyers bringing lawsuits knocking on your door soon after.
Cover your options. And if you happened to be one of the half a million members to receive that letter from TriWest, remember: questions can be answered by the TriWest Customer Relations department by calling (888) 339-9378 or by e-mailing email@example.com.
As for me, if I had to pay for a Mustang, I'd rather be driving it.