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Congress Debates Help for Veterans Affected by Stolen Data

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Credit agencies say they're getting a lot of phone calls from veterans who were concerned about the theft of their personal information. That information was stolen from the home of a VA employee in early May, and that left more than 26 million vets at risk of identity theft.

Now, they have to decide whether to pay for services that are supposed to protect them. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

Byron Sable(ph), of Orlando, Florida, gazes out at the fountain at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Sable, a former National Guardsman, says he has heard about the VA data theft, but he hasn't figured out what to do to protect himself.

Mr. BYRON SABLE (Former National Guardsman): We all take our information seriously, and someone needs to be responsible for managing it. I thought about it, but I haven't done anything.

ABRAMSON: That hesitation is understandable. So far, there are no signs that the stolen Social Security numbers and other information are being misused.

Vets can cross their fingers or take action. One step many will take is to put a fraud alert on their annual credit report. Donald Gerard of credit bureau Experian says the alert tells lenders to double check the person's identity.

Mr. DONALD GERARD (Director of Public Relations, Experian): There are instructions on there with that security alert that the creditor must take extra precautions when dealing with that consumer.

ABRAMSON: But the alert only lasts for 90 days, so a thief could just cool his heels before using the information. That's why Donald Gerard says Experian urges consumers to buy credit-monitoring services.

Mr. GERARD: When we generally get asked about credit monitoring, we always say that it's a great idea.

ABRAMSON: That's in part because credit monitoring is a revenue stream for credit bureaus. The service does buy convenience for consumers who get an alert when their credit report is accessed - perhaps by a thief.

Many private companies that have lost information over the past couple of years, such as Choice Point, quickly offered to pay for credit monitoring. The Veterans Administration has not announced whether it will pay what could amount to tens of millions of dollars to cover the more than 26 million veterans now at risk.

Members of Congress are elbowing each other aside as they push legislation to cover credit monitoring for vets. But Jay Foley, of the Identity Theft Resource Center, is not convinced these services work.

Mr. JAY FOLEY (Co-Founder and Executive Director, Identity Theft Resource Center): We have not had any of the credit monitoring services come to us and show us proof-positive that their products work, or how they work. We can't support something that there's no documentation on how they work.

ABRAMSON: Foley says there's always a danger that vets will end up paying for credit monitoring services after Congressional support dries up. Many companies offer these services for free for a month or so, then consumers must pay unless they opt out.

Some consumer groups say people can monitor their credit on their own by regularly checking their credit reports. Some consumers in 19 states can put a freeze on their credit that makes it virtually impossible to open a new account. It can also make it difficult for actual consumers who want to make a purchase.

All of these strategies ask a lot of consumers. For veterans, it's not clear how great a risk they face. The VA bandits apparently were not looking for the data they ended up stealing.

One company, called ID Analytics, helps figure out just how high the risk is by detecting whether stolen information is actually being used. Spokesman Tom Oscherwitz says the technology looks for the unusual behavior that is typical of identity thieves.

Mr. TOM OSCHERWITZ (Director of Government Affairs and Privacy, ID Analytics): They have to change phone numbers in order to confirm identities with banks, and they have to get an address where information is sent to. And the mere act of changing your phone number or changing your address leaves footprints, and we can track and catch those footprints.

ABRAMSON: Oscherwitz says ID Analytics has been in talks with the VA. No matter what strategy the government takes to contain this data spill, vets will have to do their part and will likely learn that the price for easy credit in this country is eternal vigilance against identity theft.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.