- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Personal information for as many as 26.5 million U.S. veterans — including names, birth dates and Social Security numbers — was stolen earlier this month from the suburban Maryland home of a federal employee who took electronic data files home without authorization, officials said yesterday.

The FBI and other law-enforcement agencies are investigating the theft, which officials say occurred during the burglary of the home of a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs data analyst.

So far, however, there is no evidence that the thieves have used the veterans’ information in identity-theft crimes, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson said yesterday.

The missing personal material potentially involves the records of “all people who served in the military and have been discharged since 1975,” Mr. Nicholson told reporters and leaders of veterans’ organizations yesterday.

VA officials said the missing records also included identifying information “for some spouses, as well as some disability ratings” of veterans.

“Importantly, in these incidents, no medical records or financial records of any veterans have been compromised,” Mr. Nicholson said. “There is no indication any use is being made of these data.”

The secretary refused to identify the data analyst, other than to say that he is a “career” employee and “not a senior official” and that the FBI had asked that the staffer’s identity not be released.

The worker is “on administrative leave” at this time, Mr. Nicholson said, because he “violated VA policies” by “taking home electronic data” from the department, “which he was not authorized to do.” The analyst took the data home, the secretary said, “because he was working on a project.”

The FBI and others investigating the crime, including local police and the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General, “believe it was a random burglary,” and investigators do not think that the burglar or burglars were after veterans’ identity records. Other burglaries have occurred in the same neighborhood as the VA employee’s home, said Mr. Nicholson, who declined to specify where the home is located.

“Authorities believe it is unlikely the perpetrators targeted the items because of any knowledge of the data contents,” Mr. Nicholson said. “It is possible they remain unaware of the information which they possess or of how to make use of it. However, out of an abundance of caution, VA is taking all possible steps to protect and inform our veterans.”

Bob Wallace, executive director of the 1.8 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars, made it clear that he was outraged that a federal employee had put veterans at risk of identity theft.

“This is a very serious problem, which could potentially be very serious for individuals who’ve given so much already,” said Mr. Wallace, adding that he was particularly dismayed that people who should not have access to this information are now in possession of the Social Security numbers of millions of veterans. “After all, this is one of the numbers that can affect whether a person gets important things like a home mortgage or a car loan.”

Both the VA employee involved and any superiors “who may have given tacit approval” for the analyst to take the data files home should be subject to “immediate termination,” Mr. Wallace said.

“I would hope the management of the VA, after the investigation is over, holds everyone accountable who was in any way, shape or form involved,” he said.

Mr. Nicholson said the VA is sending out “individual notification letters [to veterans whose data were stolen] to every extent possible.”

“Veterans should monitor all their banking and financial transactions and examine their credit reports,” which they will receive free under the law, Mr. Nicholson said.

The VA has established a toll-free call center at 800/FED-INFO (800/333-4636) to deal with veterans’ concerns about the issue. That number will be operational from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, Monday through Saturday, Mr. Nicholson said.

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