June 18, 2007 at 5:08 PM ET
Military spouses are frequent targets for charlatans, so they’re frequently warned to maintain a healthy skepticism. But the latest identity theft scam targeting soldiers' families is enough to make even a veteran crime fighter's skin crawl.
Creeps are calling up military spouses, posing as representatives of the American Red Cross. The caller tells the spouse that his or her husband or wife has been injured in Iraq and taken to Germany for life-saving treatment. But the treatment cannot begin, the caller says, until the spouse provides the soldier's Social Security Number and birth date.
There is a very warm place in hell for anyone who would pull such a stunt. It’s hard enough spending every day stateside, praying that a call or visit with that kind of bad news never arrives. That tension could make anyone crazy, and vulnerable. To use that vulnerability as an angle to commit identity theft is subhuman.
Let's dispense a few facts first. The Red Cross says it never makes this kind of phone call. News about casualties is always delivered to families by the U.S. military.
Second, soldiers’ Social Security numbers tend to be among the worst kept secrets in the military. Since the 1960s, they've been used on dog tags, printed on rosters, and exposed in all manner of careless ways. In fact, seemingly everyone knows your SSN if you’re in the military -- a very sore point among soldiers. It's highly unlikely that a Social Security number would stand between a solider and their medical care.
No one -- not a military spouse, not a family member, not a friend -- should ever give out personal information like this to a caller. If you are ever tempted, tell the caller that you have to hang up, and ask for a return phone number. That will give you time to think, and it will probably make a con artist give up. The bad guys generally won't give out a phone number.
In April, the Red Cross issued a warning about a similar scam targeting the families of soldiers in Alabama and Michigan. In that version, the caller said the solider was missing in action. Arkansas Assistant Attorney General Brad Phelps told MSNBC.com that his office has received 10 complaints in the past week about this latest variation of the scam.
"It's a fairly common tactic in these kinds of scams," Phelps said. "(Criminals) convey a sense of immediacy, a sense of crisis to the consumer, and hope the consumer will respond with the personal information."
Criminals who stoop to such lows may not realize what they have coming to them. Impersonating a member of the Red Cross is a federal crime, punishable by up to five years in jail, according to Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. Families that receive such a call are urged to capture the caller ID information and contact their local police department.
Military families with any concerns also can contact their Family Readiness Group, which provides support an information on the home front.
"It is reprehensible that people would try to illegally profit off of the brave men and women who are risking their lives fighting for our country," McDaniel said. "The only thing worse is that they do so by preying on the emotions of their husbands and wives."
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