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EDITORIAL: VA theft hits home here in the Tri-Cities
[June 16, 2006]

EDITORIAL: VA theft hits home here in the Tri-Cities

(Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, WA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jun. 16--Tri-Citians who are military veterans probably didn't think theft of a Veterans Administration laptop computer had anything to do with them. They got another think this week.

Letters from R. James Nicholson, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, began showing up in local mailboxes.

The stolen data, the secretary wrote, "contained identifying information including names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth for up to 26.5 million veterans and some spouses, as well as some disability ratings."

In the current (justified) fear of identity theft, the concern of the government and apprehension of veterans is understandable.

What happened is that a VA employee took a computer home for the night to do some work. His house was burglarized and the computer taken.

The VA Inspector General's Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are investigating. It's unlikely the target of the burglary was computer data or even that the thief or thieves knew it was in the computer.

The employee was fired. He wasn't authorized to take the computer out of his office and the VA has a policy against doing it.

So, in all probability, a $1,000 theft has become a multi-million-dollar problem for the government.

And a multi-billion-dollar problem for veterans' privacy and monetary concerns.

We have all been told for decades to guard our personal information and Social Security numbers (even while the government and business routinely demand we use the same numbers as our personal identifiers in dealing with them).

The VA letter urges some specific precautions for all veterans and spouses:

"Beware of any phone calls, e-mails and other communications from individuals claiming to be from VA or other official sources, asking for your personal information or verification of it.

"This is often referred to as information solicitation or 'phishing.' VA, other government agencies and other legitimate organizations will not contact you to ask or confirm your personal information."

In case anyone tries, the VA asks you to report it at 1-800-FED-INFO (1-800-333-4636).

There's an unusual but understandable twist to the letter. That twist arises from a commendable -- if unusual -- government effort to be forthcoming.

The last paragraph speaks for itself:

"In accordance with current policy, the Internal Revenue Service has agreed to forward this letter because we (the VA) do not have current addresses for all affected individuals. The IRS has not disclosed your address or any other tax information to us."

So, while warning veterans that others may be snooping in their records, they're assured that the VA won't be snooping into IRS records.

It's reassuring. But even more reassuring would be to get that stolen computer back.

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