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Cantwell Demands Answers Following Theft of Millions of Veterans’ Personal Information


Tuesday, May 23,2006


WASHINGTON, DC – Tuesday, following reports that millions of veterans’ personal data was stolen from the home of a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employee, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) demanded quick action to help veterans guard against identity theft, and called for better security to ensure that sensitive personal information remains as secure as possible in the future. According to the VA, up to 26 million veterans could be at risk of identity theft after intruders stole an electronic data file earlier this month with the names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers of veterans. To help Washington state veterans learn more about the theft and what they can do to safeguard their identities, Cantwell posted information and links on her website at http://cantwell.senate.gov/ .

“Identity theft is our nation’s fastest growing crime, and America’s veterans are at risk just as much as other Americans,” said Cantwell. “This theft represents the largest-ever unauthorized disclosure of social security numbers. Our veterans need to be able to trust that their personal information is secure.”

In a letter sent Tuesday to VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, Cantwell underscored the importance of better security, and asked the VA what it was doing to help victims protect themselves and ensure that the stolen information is not used for criminal activity.

“Our nation’s veterans and their family members deserve to know that the federal government is protecting their information with the same vigor and commitment that they dedicated to protecting our nation,” Cantwell wrote. “As long as their private information remains at risk, millions of veterans are vulnerable to identity thieves and we have an obligation to better safeguard their privacy and financial security.”

The theft, reported Monday by Secretary Nicholson, involves personal information of all living veterans discharged since 1975 and some of their spouses, as well as some veterans who filed an earlier claim for benefits. However, according to the VA, the data did not include any of VA’s electronic health records or financial information. There are 670,000 veterans living in Washington state. To learn more about the theft and what Washington state’s veterans can do to safeguard their identities, the VA has posted important information online at http://www.va.gov/.

Veterans can also go to www.firstgov.gov as well as www.va.gov/opa. The VA has set up a toll-free number (1-800-333-4636) to help veterans get information and learn more about how to protect their identities. The call center is open from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. Pacific Time, Monday through Saturday.

Cantwell has worked actively to help identity theft victims and reduce the number of identity thefts. Cantwell’s Fair and Accurate Transactions Act, signed into law in 2003, helps ensure that identity theft victims are able to protect their credit rating from further damage by requiring credit reporting agencies to block information on fraudulent transactions resulting from identity theft. It created a standardized process for people to establish themselves as victims of identity theft, and allows law enforcement to act as the victim's agent in obtaining business records. The law also requires that once a business verifies that an individual is a victim of identity theft, the business has 30 days to provide all relevant application and transaction records to the victim.

Cantwell is also the sponsor of legislation to investigate the link between meth crimes and other criminal activity such as identity theft. The growing connection between identity theft, the nation’s fastest-growing crime and the use and production of methamphetamines is an issue raised often during Cantwell’s meetings with law enforcement officials from across Washington state.

[The text of Cantwell’s letter to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs follows below]

May 23, 2006

James Nicholson
Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Ave NW
Washington, DC 20420

Dear Secretary Nicholson,

I am very concerned that the privacy and financial security of millions of veterans have been compromised by the theft of highly sensitive data from a Veterans Affairs employee’s home. With the prevalence of identity theft and its tremendous impact on all Americans, I am concerned that this stolen information may be used for criminal purposes.

This theft represents the largest-ever unauthorized disclosure of social security numbers—key personal information identity thieves use to ply their trade. Stolen data compromises the privacy of our veterans and their families, leaving them vulnerable to identity theft. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs website, the social security numbers, names, and dates of birth of up to 26.5 million American veterans were stolen from a Veterans Affairs employee’s home. This theft involves sensitive personal information of all living veterans who served and have been discharged since 1975 and some of their spouses, as well as some who filed an earlier claim for federal benefits.

While, I understand that you have various investigations underway, our veterans and the American people deserve quick answers. Please respond to my questions below:

· Can you specify how many veterans, spouses, and deceased veterans had their personal information stolen?

· What information was compromised?

· What is the Department of Veterans Affairs policy for removing personal information from VA facilities?

· Is there any evidence that the stolen information has been used to engage in additional criminal activity?

· Does the VA encrypt sensitive personal information that veterans and their spouses provide to the VA?

· What exactly has the VA been doing to coordinate with federal and state law enforcement agencies to protect veterans from the criminal use of their stolen personal information from the time of the reported burglary at the VA employee’s home on May 3 and your public disclosure of the information security breach on May 22?

· What steps is the VA taking to notify all affected veterans and spouses, including those who may be hard to reach?

· What additional information is the VA providing, so affected individuals may protect themselves from potential identity thieves?

· What steps is the VA taking to make sure that this does not happen again?

Our nation’s veterans and their family members deserve to know that the federal government is protecting their information with the same vigor and commitment that they dedicated to protecting our nation. As long as their private information remains at risk, millions of veterans are vulnerable to identity thieves and we have an obligation to better safeguard their privacy and financial security. I look forward to your quick response to my questions. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Maria Cantwell
United States Senator