Read on Credit Sesame
Uniformed personnel and their dependents are consumers, too—and no less critical to the national economy as their civilian counterparts.
Almost 1.5 million men and women serve on active duty and another one million-plus serve in the National Guard and Reserve. In contrast to most civilian jobs, military service, by its very nature, delivers certain kinds of constant stress. Frequent changes of ship and station, and the emotional toll of separation from family and friends. Not least is the exceptionally stressful deployment to war-torn regions of the world.
The geographic mobility and emotional vulnerability that comes with service to country before self make military households an appealing target for crooks. For instance, during 2012 (the most recent year reported) the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recorded over 62,000 complaints from service members, veterans and spouses about their negative experiences in the marketplace. Not all fraud-related, but enough to make you sit up and take notice.
If you’re a member of the military, here’s a look at resources and protective measures designed to help safeguard your finances and protect you from being a victim of identity theft during deployment.
Resources for Service members
Among the best websites to offer practical ways and means to protect yourself is Military.ncpw.gov. Input comes from the FTC, Department of Defense, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Military Saves and more than a dozen other federal and state agencies, consumer advocates and military support groups.
All of these organizations unite to share resources to help our military members avoid scams, invest sensibly, and to manage their money and credit and to deal with debt. Keep in mind that if the web address does not have “.gov” at the end of the line, the site belongs to a private, commercial for-profit entity.
Protect Your Credit Reports
An active duty alert means businesses are required to take extra steps before granting any further credit in your name. Active duty alerts last for one year and are easily renewable to match your deployment calendar.
To place an active duty alert on your report, contact the fraud department of one credit reporting company; they must contact the other two.
- Equifax: 1-800-525-6285 or www.equifax.com
- Experian: 1-888-397-3742 or www.experian.com
- TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289 or www.transunion.com
The credit reporting companies also will take your name off their marketing lists for prescreened credit card offers for two years, unless you ask them to add you back onto the list.
In addition, you can take steps to protect yourself.
Communicate with your financial institutions. Call or email quickly if you notice any unauthorized activity at all on a financial or healthcare account, including mistakes, or if your personal check or job/loan application are unexpectedly turned down.
Go paperless. Avoid putting your personal data into a thief’s hands by having all documents and statements delivered electronically.
Keep computers healthy. Check your computer for malware and change passwords regularly. Of course, also change the login name and password for any accounts that have been tampered with. Use a different computer and choose complex passwords that would be difficult for someone else to guess. Hackers have a tough time cracking a long password with a mix of letters, numbers, and special characters. Avoid using the same password for multiple accounts, and especially for multiple financial accounts. If the password is stolen—either from you or one of the sites where you use it—a crook may attempt to use that password to take over all of your accounts.
Guard data on open Wi-Fi. At the coffee café, be cautious about using an unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot to check your bank balance. Transmitting information through sites or apps while connected to an unencrypted Wi-Fi hotspot is dangerous because a hacker might be watching.
Never shop with a credit card or send other personal information in an unsecured hotspot. Instead, use a secure wireless network protected by WPA2 security, or your phone’s data network. Can’t tell if a Wi-Fi network is secure? Assume it’s not.
Research offers and requests. Military personnel are often targeted for scams. Beware of any product that offers instant or guaranteed approval. Also beware of any request for a copy of your military ID, passport, credit card or bank information. Scammers pose as government contractors, Veteran’s Administration representatives and other officials.
Learn your device’s security features. Check the privacy settings on your devices and apps. Delete apps that require invasive permissions. Location trackers are common. If you don’t want marketers to know all the places you go, disable location tracking in the camera and in any app where you have the option. Of course, some apps, like maps and directions, won’t work without geolocating turned on. That’s why it’s important to understand your device and all of its uses.
Follow the rules. Don’t use a government computer or device in an unauthorized manner or attempt to install software or apps without permission. Don’t reveal your password or loan your CAC card to anyone.
Know your rights. Whatever shade of uniform you wear, know your rights. The federal Service Members Civil Relief Act (SCRA) protects active military personnel. The law’s purpose is to postpone or suspend certain civil obligations so active duty members of the Armed Forces can focus their full attention on their military responsibilities without adverse consequences for them or their families.
SCRA offers the following protections:
- Cap interest rates at 6% for most preexisting loans, including mortgages, credit cards and auto loans
- Early termination of automobile lease without a fee
- Early termination of cellphone service contract without a fee
- Early termination of residential lease without a fee
- Active duty service members and their dependents may not be evicted without a court order
- An active duty service member’s home may not be foreclosed upon without a court order
- Conditions apply, of course. Click here for an overview.
Preventive Measures to Protect Your Finances
Power of attorney. Grant power of attorney to a spouse, parent or other trusted individual so that that person can handle financial matters in your absence. They’ll have the legal right to sign important documents and take other actions on your behalf.
Choose your representative carefully. Power of attorney lets a person spend your money and take on debt in your name. If that isn’t something you are comfortable with, the power of attorney can be limited to a specific area of your financial affairs and limited to a certain period of time. It can also be revoked by you at any time.
Good record-keeping. Keep financial records that are accurate and up-to-date. This means giving the person who will be handling your financial affairs all bank account and credit card numbers, outstanding debts, typical expenses and all phone numbers and addresses necessary for dealing with financial matters. That includes an exact way to contact you by address, computer, or telephone.
Plan ahead for tax season. As we head into the 2015 tax filing season and before you deploy, decide how your taxes are to be filed and who will file them. If your spouse has taken on tax duty, make sure that person has all the necessary documents. The IRS also allows military personnel to file for an extension by using Form 2350.
Good luck and thank you for your service!