Veterans Administration Identity Theft: Inexcusable Negligence

As much as computer technology has made life easier for all of us, there are elements of the global digital revolution that make the risks seem bigger than the rewards. Anyone with a credit card, bank account, insurance policy or pension plan has all of their personal information converted into little bits of ones and zeroes and stored on a file server somewhere.

Where you live, how much money you make, how much you spend, what you buy, what sort of prescription medicine you take, what sort of car you drive, how many children you have, your social security number and your credit, debit and bank account numbers are all one mouse click away.

This is e-commerce. This is efficient record keeping. This is ease and convenience for shopping and paying your bills. This is also the sort of thing that makes life much easier for criminals.

Your personal information in the hands of the wrong person can be disastrous. Criminals can get credit cards in your name, transfer money from your bank accounts, rent cars, buy plane tickets, and go on shopping sprees on your dime.

Banks, insurers and credit card companies are quite good about protecting your information. They have firewalls to protect their servers that are routinely updated and improved, and the software that they use is password protected and encrypted to keep unauthorized people out. Visa, MasterCard and American Express often change numbers and re-issue cards to their clients if there is even a hint of tampering.

With the dangers of identity theft common knowledge among banks, credit card companies, insurers, HMO’s and online merchants, you would think that the United States government would take better care of its records. The government, after all, is the source of your Social Security number, which is an essential requirement for everything from a job application to a mortgage for a new home. But recent events have shown that they aren’t keeping very good track of their records.

In early May, an employee of the Veterans Administration copied personal records for veterans that had been discharged from service since 1975 and placed them on his laptop computer. That’s over thirty years worth of names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers. Although it wasn’t the intention of the employee to do anything untoward with the information (he was simply taking some work home with him,) taking all of this information out of a secure government server and transferring it to a much less secure laptop eventually proved disastrous, as the laptop was stolen along with some other of the employees personal items in a burglary.

Rather than inform the public immediately as to what happened and exactly which Veterans had their information stolen, the VA waited approximately three weeks before they informed anyone. Three weeks is more than enough time for an experienced identity thief to obtain credit cards and bank account numbers. So while the Veterans Administration twiddled its thumbs and decided to wait and see what would happen, the personal information of millions of veterans was floating around out there.

To add insult to injury, when the VA finally admitted that these records had been compromised, they refused to let anyone know exactly which veterans were at risk. So not only were they careless with the records, but at-risk veterans didn’t even know whether or not to take steps to protect themselves.

Its one thing if a bank or insurer or credit card company has taken every required and necessary step to protect information and a hacker gets in anyway. But taking the records away from the protection that is offered and leaving it lying around is not only negligent, but violates the rules of Veterans Administration policy.

There are currently two class action lawsuits being filed against the Veterans Administration, and each of them are asking for damages of $1000 per veteran affected, which is the minimum under the Privacy Act. If the suits are successful, this could result in verdicts of up to $26.5 billion.

As a law firm based in Washington, D.C, the Law Firm of Lewis and Tompkins has a special understanding of how much veterans mean to our country. We also have an understanding of how slowly and sometimes inadequately the Federal government can work. We know that it can take years for the immense D.C. bureaucracy to make changes unless there happens to be cameras pointed at them. Since the VA has a long and very bad history of security failures, and since their bureaucratic negligence put the personal information of millions of our nation’s veterans at risk, we applaud the lawsuits as not only effective punitive measures, but also a catalyst to get the Veterans Administration to clean up its act.

Identity theft is a real threat, and its time for the VA to realize it. And if you or anyone you love have been the victim of identity theft due to reasons that you feel could have been prevented, call the Law Firm of Lewis and Tompkins for a free case assessment today.

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