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Experts say military lifestyle creates higher risk for cybertheft

Navy reservist Jeff Chin in Nangahar, Afghanistan in 2018.
Jeff Chin
Navy reservist Jeff Chin in Nangahar, Afghanistan in 2018.

Navy Reserve Officer Jeff Chin said 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 about finding out his security clearance data had been breached. “It was more than just a passing nuisance. It was all my information out there, and it was just really jarring.”

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 background investigation for the Navy. Still, he said 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, an advocacy group for retirees.

Now, Chin is 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 due to frequent moves, long deployments overseas, and regular government paychecks.

Hari Ravichandran, founder of cybersecurity company Aura, discusses online safety tools in 2022.
Hari Ravichandran, founder of cybersecurity company Aura, discusses online safety tools in 2022.

Hari Ravichandran, the founder of Aura, 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 Veterans Administration, like disability payments and loans for housing and education.

“And 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 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 impacted by the water contamination at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, or veterans who became sick from burn pits overseas.

Whenever veteran-related laws are passed — like the PACT Act to expand benefits for troops who were exposed to toxins overseas — Chin said he gets a flood of 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.

Desiree reports on the lives of military service members, veterans, and their families for WSHU as part of the American Homefront project. Born and raised in Connecticut, she now calls Long Island home.