CINCINNATI — Members of the military hit by identity theft have more to lose than just credit ratings and money from their bank accounts.
Damaged credit and large debt can lead to military disciplinary action, and innocent service members also can find themselves wrongly linked to crimes by identity thieves' use of stolen information, according to legal and consumer experts. The fallout from identity theft can cost service members their security clearance and even cancel or delay deployment.
"If nothing else, it complicates their lives as they try to prove their innocence and distracts from their mission," said Steve Lynch, a legal assistance civilian attorney assigned fulltime to help military personnel in Ohio and other Great Lakes states.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, ID theft continues to be the top complaint category nationally by consumers identifying themselves as military, with about 22,000 complaints in 2013. The Ohio attorney general's office said its search of a database available only to law enforcement found military identity theft complaints filed by Ohio consumers jumped almost 20 percent, from 97 in 2012 to 116 last year.
Those are among reasons cited for an Ohio bill increasing penalties and legal options in cases of identity fraud committed against active-duty service members and their spouses. The measure, sponsored by state Rep. Mike Dovilla, a Berea Republican, is being debated in the state Senate after clearing the House.
"This is something that's having a real impact on the people who are out defending our liberties every day," Dovilla said. "They shouldn't have to worry about having their identity stolen or bank account raided or credit card tapped into, and the same goes for their spouses."
Dovilla's bill raises identity fraud and theft by one felony degree when committed against service members or their spouses, treating them similarly to the elderly or disabled under the law. The felony level depends on the crime's severity. The bill also allows Ohio victims of identify fraud to file civil actions.
Ohio isn't alone in trying to stem military identity fraud.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says Illinois and New York already have approved stronger penalties for those knowingly stealing identities of active-duty service members. In New Jersey, pending legislation would increase penalties for identity theft committed against veterans. North Carolina restricts release of military discharge documents in order to prevent identity theft against veterans.
A common way for thieves to access identity information has been through Social Security numbers printed for years on military ID cards. The Department of Defense began removing printed Social Security numbers from ID cards in 2008, and has been replacing that information with new identification numbers.
In 2012, the department started removing Social Security numbers included on machine-readable barcodes on the ID cards and plans to complete that by 2017, according to department spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen.
Air Force Capt. Valerie Kulesza, stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, supports the Ohio bill. But, she'd like to see penalties strengthened for those targeting service members' children and other dependents. Her stepdaughter's name and Social Security number were used to set up false Internet credit accounts when the 2-year-old was only 6 months old. While that information wasn't accessed through military records, Kulesza is concerned about identity thieves getting military children's information through their parents' records.
Dovilla says he is willing to consider adding dependents as a future step, and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine favors that. DeWine, who has pushed for the tougher penalties, says military personnel and their families have more difficulty guarding their information.
"It is not as easy for them to check all the time, since they are moving around," DeWine said.
Combat deployments also make it harder for service members to fix the fallout from identity theft, Holly Petraeus, an assistant director with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said.
"They may not even realize their identity has been stolen for some time, giving the fraudster ample time to do significant damage," she said.