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RAF MILDENHALL, England — Thieves spent $650 on a shopping spree at Bloomingdale's in New York City and more than $1,100 at various Canadian businesses in just two cases of identity theft reported in the past month within Air Force communities in England.

Sixty-six victims reported losses totaling $37,917 at RAF Lakenheath from July 5 to Aug. 5.

Victimsf bank accounts were hacked and duplicate debit cards were created to make purchases all over North America, from Canada to Mexico and throughout the States, according to statistics provided by Lakenheathfs 48th Security Forces Squadron.

Approximately 150 identity theft incidents totaling about $70,000 were reported within the RAF Mildenhall and Lakenheath communities in the past month, according to Air Force investigators. Numbers for victims stationed at the 501st Combat Support Wing bases in England were not available by press time.

Maj. John Northon, commander of the 48th Security Forces Squadron at Lakenheath, said his shop usually gets one identity theft report a month.

This string of thefts has been unusual, he said.

Itfs unclear at this point whether the thefts were a result of a mass breach of consumer information or individual accounts being compromised, he said.

Northon said he checked with U.S. Air Forces in Europe officials and the outbreak appears confined to England. "As far as we know itfs mostly just Lakenheath and Mildenhall," he said.

The two security forces squadrons are working with the local Air Force Office of Special Investigations and other U.K. and U.S. agencies in the investigation, AFOSI Special Agent Terry Bullard said this week.

The fraudulent Lakenheath charges include $100 paid to a New York Exxon Mobile station on July 28 and $1,800 charged at a Missouri Wal-Mart in mid-July.

No arrests have been made in connection with the thefts, Bullard said.

Northon said the best way for people to protect themselves from identity theft is to check their bank accounts and credit card statements regularly.

Some community members withdrew their money from local banks in response to identity theft. Northon said thatfs a personal decision each individual makes.

Representatives for Community Bank and Keesler Federal Credit Union, the two main military banks here, did not return calls by Stars and Stripes on Wednesday.

The fact that existing bank accounts were infiltrated suggests someone with inside access perpetrated the crimes or a hacker got into the banking networks, according to Robert Siciliano, a security analyst who got involved in the issue about a decade ago when his own identity was stolen.

There were about 8.5 million victims of identity theft in the States in 2005, according to the Federal Trade Commissionfs most recent statistics.

Tips to avoid identity theft

If you believe you have been a victim of identity theft, contact your local law enforcement, legal office or affected financial institutions immediately.

Here are some tips to avoid identity theft:

¡ Pay attention to billing cycles. A missed bill could mean someone has changed your billing address or taken over an account.

¡ Before revealing any personal information, such as a Social Security number, find out how it will be used and whether it will remain confidential.

¡ Guard your mail from theft by requesting a vacation hold when youfre not going to be around.

¡ Put passwords on your credit card, bank and other accounts, and avoid easily identifiable passwords, such as your birth date.

¡ Do not give out personal information over the phone or Internet unless you have initiated the contact and know whom youfre dealing with.

¡ Keep items with personal information such as bank statements, Social Security cards, charge receipts and credit card applications in a secure place.

¡ Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies once a year. Make sure it is accurate and includes only authorized transactions.

SOURCE: 48th Fighter Wing Office of the Staff Judge Advocate

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