Veterans' Personal Data Stolen

The names and personal information of more than 26 million veterans was recently stolen from the home of a Veterans Affairs employee. A burglar stole a laptop computer and an external drive where the data had been improperly stored. Noah Adams gets an update on the theft from Gordon Lubold, Pentagon reporter for Army Times publishing.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up: Is the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan? But first.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Woman #1: Welcome to 1-800-FED-INFO.

ADAMS: That's the telephone number many US veterans are calling today, and they are understandably anxious. Their personal information was stolen in an apparent burglary at the home of a Department of Veterans Affairs employee. Social Security numbers of more than 26 million vets were included in the data.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Woman #1: We believe this theft was a random act and not a deliberate attempt to steal information about veterans. The VA is actively investigating, but there is no reason to believe any veteran's information will be misused.

ADAMS: Veterans have been steered to this telephone line and to a help site on the Internet to address any concerns of identity theft. Gordon Lubold is Pentagon correspondent for Army Times publishing. Mr. Lubold, what, precisely, could somebody have found out about a given veteran?

Mr. GORDON LUBOLD (Pentagon Correspondent, Army Times): Well, I think here they could've found out somebody's name, Social Security Number and date of birth and could use it in any number of ways to start a credit card or to get other kind of information, or just build a new credit score for somebody else.

ADAMS: Could be a full-fledged identity theft just from that data?

Mr. LUBOLD: Correct. Part of the problem is that you know you might be, as a potential victim, as a veteran, you might be okay next month. But the problem is what about the month afterwards, or next - six months or next year.

ADAMS: Tell us about the theft itself. It was a break in at a house? What was the information doing at a house? And is there any indication that somebody was looking for it?

Mr. LUBOLD: I think the employee was a career data analyst with the Department of Veterans Affairs and took the information home to work on it, and then had the misfortune of having his house - his or her house robbed. A laptop and external hard drive and some coins were stolen. There's some indication that there's been a rash of burglaries in the area that kind lends some credibility to the idea that this was a random burglary.

ADAMS: But, of course, now it is on the front page of The Washington Post so somebody who stole it can figure out pretty much that they have it. It could be worth something.

Mr. LUBOLD: I think it's clear that it's worth a lot to somebody, whether the person who stole it, who might be just looking for television sets and stereos, has any idea how you possibly sell 26 and a half million names, Social Security Numbers and dates of birth. I don't know, but certainly its valuable data stats.

ADAMS: We heard the telephone help there and there's an Internet help site. But one thing you could surely do is to keep checking your report, but that costs you some money if you go beyond a couple of times for that. Is the Pentagon going to reimburse 26.5 million vets?

Mr. LUBOLD: The Department of Veterans Affairs, who's really in charge of this whole investigation and everything, has said kind of gently, no they're not going to be, you know, offering free credit reports. That was their first response yesterday when they first announced this problem. I think that's something that they're going to have to look at, because I think it's an ongoing issue.

ADAMS: Any veterans groups taking a stand on this being alerting their members and fussing?

Mr. LUBOLD: Certainly. You know a number of groups here in Washington have done their own kind of notification efforts of their members. The VA, by the way, is sending out, I think, upwards of 26.5 million letters and getting the word out to the press and other channels. The IG, the inspector general of the VA had warned of concerns of this kind of compromise in the past. The VA has made it clear that the employee was not following procedures, however, you know whatever it was that allowed him to walk out the door with a hard drive full of 26.5 million names is probably going to have to be addressed.

Democrats on the Hill are definitely calling for some heads and want a full investigation and people are very upset. It's also a bit embarrassing because President Bush had created an identity theft task force, which, as I understand, was meeting for the first time yesterday. This is, you know, obviously front and center.

ADAMS: Gordon Lubold is Pentagon Correspondent for Army Times. Thank you, sir.

Mr. LUBOLD: Thank you.

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