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Veterans react with anger, accusations

As more details emerge about the theft of data that could put millions of veterans at risk, veterans groups demand an explanation.

Published May 24, 2006

[AP photo]
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, center, answers questions from the media Monday about the stolen personal data of U.S. veterans.
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From Washington to the Tampa Bay area, VA officials got an earful Tuesday from veterans worried they could become victims of identity theft because of a burglary in suburban Maryland.

"It's abominable," said Ed Pazicky, 69, a retired Air Force lieutenant from Port Charlotte.

A computer disc containing names, birth dates and Social Security numbers of 26.5-million veterans and some of their spouses was stolen earlier this month from the home of a VA employee.

The Tampa Bay area has 321,000 veterans.

On Tuesday, the Justice Department said it was not told about the theft until late last week, about two weeks after it happened. That raised questions about whether the VA acted quickly enough to notify veterans.

"The information was kept from the American public," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "I would hope that the administration is figuring out a way to find out what happened and then find out some way to make sure that all these veterans are made whole."

In St. Petersburg, the VA regional office on the campus of Bay Pines VA Medical Center expanded hours of operation into the weekend to answer people's questions. A congressional hearing scheduled on patient safety Thursday was scrapped in favor of a hearing on the theft.

John Newstreet, Florida director of the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization with 2.7-million members, said he fielded calls from veterans throughout the day.

Newstreet said many callers expressed frustration with the VA because it compromised sensitive personal information. He said the group, which has 134,000 members in Florida, advised veterans not to panic.

"We definitely don't want to create a state of chaos," Newstreet said. "We also don't want them to turn a blind eye."

VA Secretary Jim Nicholson said veterans affected by the theft include anyone discharged since 1975 and some veterans discharged before that who submitted a claim for VA benefits.

He said the data did not include VA's electronic health records or financial information.

News of the theft was a topic of conversation Tuesday at James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, the nation's busiest VA hospital. While waiting for his doctor, Brian Huggins, 35, of Plant City, watched a CNN report about the stolen records and grabbed a newspaper to get more information.

"It's absolutely appalling," said Huggins, who served in the Persian Gulf War. "How can all that information be on a computer disc that someone could just take home?"

The VA inspector general has long cautioned that access controls to sensitive information at the VA are weak.

Huggins said that he was worried about his medical records, but that Haley officials told him they were secure. Huggins, an insurance salesman, said he planned to run a free credit report immediately.

Don Brockmeier, 77, a member of a Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter in St. Petersburg, said the VA employee who took the data home should be punished.

"I was just glad that information went back to 1975 and not to 1951," he said.

Not everybody was concerned.

Ed Noll, commander of the Veterans of Foreign War Post 10209 in Spring Hill, said some veterans had other things on their minds.

"They were more concerned about the weather, if it's going to rain or not, this morning than anything else," Noll said. "When something starts happening, then they'll probably get worried."

The VA said there was no evidence the data had been used illegally, but advised veterans to monitor bank and credit card statements. Veterans should report suspicious activity to their financial institutions and the Federal Trade Commission.

"If the data has been misused or otherwise used to commit fraud or identity theft crimes," the VA said, "it is likely that veterans may notice suspicious activity during the month of May."

Fraud and identity theft experts said veterans should take precautionary measures including alerting the three major credit bureaus - Equifax, Experian and TransUnion - to report they may be a victim of identity theft.

"Once you know your information is out there, you want to think about the worst case scenario - that a person would want to go open accounts in your name," said Rich Brody, a professor at the University of South Florida College of Business who specializes in fraud and forensic accounting.

Brody, who has been a victim of identity theft, said veterans should be operating in "damage control mode" by asking the three credit bureaus to place a fraud-alert in their file so that creditors know to contact them whenever a new account is being opened in their name.

"The problem with this is it's so huge that you wonder if 26-million people are going to call the credit agencies and all try to get fraud alerts put on their account," Brody said.

"But you know what? They should."

Joe March, American Legion spokesman in Washington, said the credit agencies offered to include a fraud alert free of charge on the credit accounts of veterans.

The VA inspector general and the FBI are investigating the theft.

The House Veterans' Affairs Committee said it had been inundated by telephone calls from veterans groups, other members of Congress and even fellow staffers who are veterans.

Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, is chairman of the panel's oversight and investigations subcommittee, which plans to hold a hearing on the issue Thursday. Bilirakis said he and his colleagues would investigate how to better safeguard such sensitive information.

Ben Ritter of Paralyzed Veterans of America in Tampa said he was upset with the VA.

"With all the media coverage on this event, the thief will probably be clued in as to the potential value," Ritter wrote in an e-mail. "Let's hope the thief doesn't read newspapers or watch the evening news. Let's hope it was a dumb thief."

Times staff writer Chandra Broadwater contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 28, 2006, 10:29:35]

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