When Social Security numbers were essentially worthless, they used to be stitched and spray-painted on troops’ duffel bags.

Now that identity thieves can parlay the numbers into thousands of dollars or more, the Department of Defense is trying to make them invisible. And not just to the naked eye.

The DOD recently announced it will begin truncating Social Security numbers on military identification cards in December. Only the last four digits of the number will appear on the card. Along with limiting their visibility, military agencies are also moving toward using the shortened versions when sharing records.

The plan is part of a bigger federal fight against large-scale cyber crime rings.

"Data breach, that’s been the focus of our attention," said Mary Dixon, director of the Defense Manpower Data Center, a DoD clearinghouse for personnel and training databases in Arlington, Va. "Many more people have been affected that way."

Incidents such as the 2006 Veterans Affairs Department flap — in which the sensitive records of millions of veterans were compromised when an employee’s laptop was stolen — are driving the effort, she said.

It’s being accomplished by constantly enhancing computer network security, vetting information handlers more often before trusting them with sensitive records, encrypting more data and steering away from tying Social Security numbers to as many personal records, Dixon said.

The measures are not unique to the military.

"This is something the whole government is trying to do," said Betsy Broder, an ID-theft expert with the Federal Trade Commission.

A presidential task was established in 2006 and incorporates 17 federal agencies in an effort to reduce ID theft both in the public and private sectors, said Broder, assistant director of the division of privacy and identity protection at the FTC, which tracks ID-theft data used by local, state and federal law enforcement authorities.

Before the Internet revolution increased the reach and ease of communication and commerce, stealing someone’s identity was more difficult. That’s changed in recent years with the proliferation of online public records systems, search engines and other sources of official and unofficial documents floating around cyber space.

"Technology has made it much easier for ID thieves to ply their trade," and has led to a wholesale information black market that criminals use to sell, buy and trade large amounts of sensitive data, Broder said.

The Social Security number is often the key to breaking the code into someone’s financial, medical and other personal records. What’s more, the number and the name attached to it are often all that’s needed to fraudulently open a line of credit or buy property.

Rolled out in 1937 to implement President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government welfare program, Social Security numbers have evolved into much more and are now required for getting a job, securing insurance, buying a house and paying taxes.

"If [Social Security numbers] were only being used for the purpose they were designed for we wouldn’t have this discussion," Dixon said. "But everybody uses the Social Security number for everything."

That’s why it will take the military until the end of 2009 to remove the full Social Security number from all 8.2 million ID cards currently issued worldwide. The phase-in will give time to process all the new cards that will have to be issued, plus, more importantly, time for military agencies that have built their records and operations systems around the nine-digit numbers time to change the way they do business, Dixon said.

"It’s not difficult technically. The software is easy, but everyone who uses the Social Security number is going to have to prepare for a big change, and that takes a little bit of time," she said.

Protect your identity and credit information

Place an "active-duty alert" on your credit before deploying by contacting at least one of the three major credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experion and TranUnion. One company will contact the rest. The alert requires creditors to verify servicemembers’ identities before issuing lines of credit in their names. It also removes their names from the nationwide consumer reporting companies’ marketing lists for prescreened credit and insurance offers for two years.

Get a copy of your credit report annually to check for any irregularities. The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires the three companies provide the information for free at least once a year. If you discover anything out of the ordinary, contact the companies and report the incident to base police and the Federal Trade Commission.

Don’t delay in correcting your records and contacting all companies that opened fraudulent accounts. Make the initial contact by phone, although you will normally need to follow up in writing. The longer the inaccurate information goes uncorrected, the longer it will take to resolve the problem.

More information on the Web at: Federal Trade Commission.

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