May 24, 2006 in Nation/World

VA data theft a ‘scandal’

Hope Yen Associated Press
 

Identity theft

Who’s affected? About 26.5 million veterans and some spouses have names, birth dates and Social Security numbers in the stolen data. Most of the data involves vets who left the military after 1975.

What if that could be me? Be vigilant, but don’t panic, say government officials and consumer advocates. There’s no evidence yet that any of the stolen data has been used illegally. Keep an extra close tab on bank, credit card or other financial transaction statements. You could also put a Fraud Alert on your credit report.

How do I get a Fraud Alert? Contact one of the following three consumer reporting companies. The one you contact will contact the other two, and send you a copy of your credit report.

“Equifax: at P.O. Box 740241 Atlanta, GA 30374-0241; or 1-800-525-6285; or www.equifax.com.

“Experian: P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013; or 1-888-397-3742; or www.experian.com.

“TransUnion: Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790; or 1-800-680-7289; or www.transunion.com.

What if I see something strange on any of my statements? Report it to the financial institution. Close any accounts that have been tampered with. File a police report. Contact the Federal Trade Commission at Identity Theft Clearinghouse, FTC, 600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20580; or 1-877-438-4338, or www.consumer.gov/idtheft.

Jim Camden, staff writer

WASHINGTON – Veterans Affairs officials waited two weeks to call in the FBI to investigate the theft of sensitive personal data, delaying a warning to 26.5 million veterans now at risk in one of the nation’s largest security breaches. Lawmakers from both parties demanded answers.

Burglars struck the suburban Maryland home of the VA data analyst in early May, taking a government-owned laptop and disks containing the names, Social Security numbers and birth dates of veterans discharged since 1975.

But the FBI wasn’t notified until late last week, two law enforcement officials said Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about the investigation.

“This is a scandal,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in a briefing with reporters. “The information was kept from the American public. I would hope that the administration is figuring out a way to find out what happened.”

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, said his panel would hold an emergency hearing Thursday because “26 million people deserve answers.” VA Secretary Jim Nicholson was expected to testify.

Matthew Burns, a VA spokesman, did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment. In a briefing Monday, Nicholson said the agency was seeking to act promptly to inform veterans by notifying Congress and setting up a call center, 1-800-FED-INFO, and Web site, www.firstgov.gov.

Meanwhile, in a briefing paper to Congress, acting VA inspector general Jon Wooditch said he was closely reviewing the theft from a VA data analyst’s Maryland home, noting that his office had long cautioned that access controls were weak.

The VA disclosed this week that the personal information – mainly from veterans discharged since 1975 – was stolen from a midlevel employee’s home in what appeared to be a routine burglary. The material included the veterans’ Social Security numbers, birth dates and in some cases a disability rating – a score of between 1 to 100 on how disabled a veteran is.

Nicholson has sought to downplay the seriousness of the breach, noting there was no evidence the burglars used the information or even knew they had it. But privacy experts said Tuesday the potential for fraud is significant.

An estimated 3.6 million U.S. households, or three of every 100, reported being victims of identity theft in the last half of 2004, a U.S. Justice Department study found. The VA security breach is second only to a hacking incident last June at CardSystems Solutions in which the accounts of 40 million credit card holders were compromised.

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