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Susan Collins

Identity Theft: A Lesson For Us All
By Senator Susan Collins
May 26, 2006 - 12:21:00 PM

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Senator Susan Collins represents the State of Maine in the U.S. Senate.
This month, the personal and confidential information of 26.5 million veterans, including more than 141,000 Maine veterans, was potentially compromised in one of our nation's largest security breaches. This incident began with the astonishing carelessness of a Veterans Affairs employee, a federal data analyst, who violated department policy by taking home a government-owned laptop computer that contained the names, social security numbers, and birthdates of our veterans. The employee's home was burglarized, and the computer, including all of this sensitive information, was stolen.

VA Secretary Jim Nicholson recently testified before a joint hearing of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee and the committee that I chair, Homeland Security. Secretary Nicholson told me and my colleagues that the VA is taking steps to help ensure that veterans and their families are aware of the situation and of the actions they may take to protect themselves from misuse of their personal information.  At the hearing, we were told that law enforcement officers say it is not likely that the burglars were targeting this data, and that they many not even know that they have it.

I am confident that Secretary Nicholson is sincerely upset and dedicated to addressing this disturbing security breach. However, Congress can not ignore the fact that the VA's data system has been identified, over and over again, as highly vulnerable. I believe that strong action must be taken to fix this ongoing problem.

In the meantime, while this incident is disturbing and extremely upsetting to our veterans, it also serves as an important reminder to us all. While we can not entirely control whether we will become a victim of identity theft, there are steps we can all take to minimize our risk and to minimize the damage if a problem ever occurs.

Identity theft is the fastest growing white-collar crime in the United States. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) estimates that 700,000 Americans are victims of identity theft each year. Identity theft occurs when someone uses our personal information without our permission to commit financial fraud or other crimes. Imagine opening your credit card statement and seeing thousands of dollars in purchases that you did not make. Or, how about going to the bank to secure a mortgage on a new home and being told that you have countless overdue bills for accounts you did not open and have never even heard of? These are just some of the examples of ways identity thieves can ruin our good names, and our good credit.

Whether we like it or not, our confidential information is readily available for thieves who are intent on stealing it. Simply doing things that are part of everyday routine--charging dinner at a restaurant, submitting personal information to employers or government agencies, throwing away credit card solicitations received in the mail, or ordering merchandise over the Internet on unsecured sites--may give thieves ample opportunity to gain access to the personal data needed to commit identity theft.

The Federal Trade Commission provides detailed information to help deter, detect, and defend against identity theft. It recommends deterring thieves by safeguarding your information. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox, and shred credit card solicitations, receipts, and any other document that contains personal information before you throw it away. Detect suspicious activity by routinely monitoring your financial accounts and billing statements. Defend against ID theft by contacting the fraud departments of your financial institutions as soon as you detect a problem. The Commission also recommends closing all accounts that you know or believe have been tampered with or opened fraudulently, and contact your local police department immediately.

The VA has pledged to send out individual notification letters to veterans affected by this recent theft. At the hearing, Secretary Nicholson also told us that his agency is working with the three nationwide credit bureaus to establish special procedures to handle inquiries and requests for fraud alerts from veterans. Veterans can get more information by going to the website, or by calling 1-800-333-4636. As always, veterans with concerns or issues can also contact any of my state offices and my staff will be happy to help you.

Our veterans served our nation honorably. It is unacceptable that a federal employee, and the lack of security at the VA, may now threaten their identities. It is critical that the VA work diligently to protect our veterans from any harm as a result of this theft. It is equally important for us all to remember that while no crime is entirely preventable, there are significant steps we can take to protect ourselves from becoming the victims of identity theft.

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