ID data of vets could be at risk

Social Security numbers, names, birth dates stolen from Maryland home of Veterans Affairs worker

May 23, 2006|By MATTHEW DOLAN | MATTHEW DOLAN,SUN REPORTER

Personal information about tens of millions of veterans might have fallen into criminal hands when someone stole the electronic data stored at the Maryland home of a federal government employee, officials announced yesterday.

The burglary earlier this month could mark one of the largest thefts of data that can be used to steal someone's identity, electronic privacy experts said.

The missing information contained names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth for up to 26.5 million veterans and some spouses. Those affected include all of those discharged by the military after 1975 and those discharged before 1975 who filed claims later with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

VA officials released few details about the theft's time and location in suburban Maryland. They said they didn't want to tip off the burglars, who they said might not understand what they had taken.

Both the Veterans Affairs' inspector general and the FBI in Baltimore joined the effort to track down the purloined information, officials said. A law enforcement source familiar with the investigation said the burglary likely happened in Montgomery County because authorities there are working on the investigation.

Officials said that the VA employee who brought the data home violated the department's policy. Department spokesman Matt Burns declined to say who the employee was, but confirmed the employee has been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.

So far, investigators believe it is unlikely the burglars know what they stole or even how to access it, according to the VA. The employee's neighborhood had been subject to a rash of break-ins, officials said.

Still, the data is the kind of specific and essential information regularly used by those who steal people's identities, a growing phenomenon in an age where new credit card accounts can be opened with a stroke of a keyboard and click on a computer mouse.

Privacy experts said the ripple effects from the burglary could be far and wide.

"There was one breach by a hacker of 40 million credit card accounts last year," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer privacy organization in San Diego. "But that's a finite problem because you can cancel the accounts."

With stolen Social Security numbers, Givens said, identity theft problems could crop up "today, tomorrow or two years from now - or never. You never know."

Sensing the enormous potential impact of the theft, Secretary of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson wrote a letter that officials said will be sent to all of those affected. His department opened a toll-free number - 1-800-333-4636 - to provide information for veterans. Additional information on the Internet is available at www.firstgov.gov.

At risk are many of the 463,000 veterans living in Maryland, according to James A. Adkins, the state's deputy secretary of veterans affairs. Adkins said he was unsure how many of those veterans could be affected by the theft, but thought he might be among them.

Veterans advocates expressed shock and dismay at the news.

The top official at the Veterans of Foreign Wars called the theft disturbing, but pledged his help to inform his 2.4 million members.

"What happened is absolutely unacceptable, but the task at hand is to inform every veteran family so that they can begin taking steps to safeguard their personal information," Jim Mueller said in a statement. "Whether the investigation reveals it was one person involved or includes others in more senior positions who may have given tacit approval, we expect their employment to be terminated immediately."

Congressional members charged with oversight of veterans affairs demanded more answers.

"It is a mystifying and gravely serious concern that a VA data analyst would be permitted to just walk out the VA door with such information," the Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans' Affairs said in a joint statement.

Citing unnamed sources, the Web site for Government Executive magazine reported last night that the employee worked in the Policy and Planning Group at department headquarters in Washington. The employee, according to the Web site, was performing a statistical analysis on the data as part of an annual department study on veteran population demographics.

Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said his committee would hold hearings on the theft of the information and the agency's procedures for handling sensitive data.

"It was shocking to think that this could happen, and that there were not security efforts in place," said Craig, who said he spoke with Nicholson for about half an hour yesterday.

"We're going to be watching it very closely," Craig said. "We hope it was a random break-in."

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