With steady paychecks and a nomadic lifestyle, military personnel are frequent targets for scams
Navy Reserve officer Jeff Chin says he has been closely watching his credit report and swatting down attempts to steal his identity since 2015. That was the year he got caught up in a massive data breach at the federal Office of Personnel Management. A hacker stole millions of records, including tens of thousands from service members who had applied for security clearances like Chin.
“That, obviously, was disturbing for me to hear that all of that information is now out there and in cyberspace,” Chin said. “It was more than just a passing nuisance. It was all my information out there, and it was just really jarring.”
Chin's security clearance data was breached, and since then, he said he’s been targeted by identity thieves who try to open credit cards and bank accounts in his name.
“It’s one of those things where we're constantly looking for that ping in the email and the monitoring service to say, ‘Hey, this flag came up,’” Chin said about his and his family’s efforts to make sure their data is secure.
Even his wife and daughter have faced identity theft issues, which Chin blames on the leak of his Navy background investigation. Still, he says he’s lucky: the breach did not derail his military career.
“My security clearance was no longer something that would affect my ability to move into different jobs and do different assignments,” Chin said. “Others weren't so lucky.”
Military families and veterans are almost 40% more likely than civilians to become victims of scammers and cyber thieves — and 80% of the attacks specifically take aim at their military benefits, according to AARP.
Chin is now the executive director of the New England chapter of Blue Star Families. The advocacy group has partnered with Aura, a cybersecurity company, to educate service members and their families about how the military lifestyle puts them at higher risk for fraud.
Aura founder Hari Ravichandran said the 2015 hack at the Office of Personnel Management is just one of the threats.
“The pocket that we see that's particularly vulnerable are military personnel that are deployed overseas,” Ravichandran said, because they might not have easy access to monitor their bank account and credit report. Plus, service members typically move around every few years, creating opportunities for hackers to steal their personal data.
Ravichandran said the threats extend beyond active duty troops.
“We've spoken with lots of veterans, where they had no idea that their identity was stolen,” Ravichandran said. “They now end up moving, go apply for a mortgage, and then can't get a mortgage because a lot of their credit information is messed up.”
He said veterans are attractive targets for criminals because they have access to a host of government benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs, such as disability payments and loans for housing and education.
“The burden is on the military family to clean it up, and that's the problem with a lot of these kinds of thefts: you have to prove to the bank and to the credit bureaus that you were not the person that actually had these negative events, and sometimes that takes months,” Ravichandran said, adding service members should be proactive about protecting their personal data through password managers and credit monitoring.
Chin, the Navy reservist with Blue Star Families, said he and his family have gotten used to constantly monitoring their credit reports for suspicious activity.
“It's added a layer of work, frankly — administrative work for me to maintain my military career,” said Chin, who in addition to his Blue Star Families position also works for a social work nonprofit organization in Massachusetts. “It's already hard enough to be a reservist where you're managing a full time job as a civilian, and then the reserve duty is often more than a part time job.”
He said he’s particularly worried about new scams targeting veterans who were exposed to burn pits overseas or were impacted by the water contamination at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Whenever veteran-related laws are passed — like the PACT Act to expand benefits for troops who were exposed to toxins — Chin said he gets a flood of fraudulent emails that claim to offer help with accessing the benefits.
“I can say with confidence that everyone that I've encountered in the military gets bombarded with these types of requests,” Chin said. “Some of them are very obvious scams, but some of them have become very sophisticated.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.