Early last week, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) was breached by an unknown cybercriminal exposing personal information for more than 46,000 veterans. The breach occurred due to a vulnerability in a medical payment application used by 17,000 community care providers.
Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.), wrote in a letter to Robert Wilkie, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs on September 16, 2020, “Based on information currently available, it appears this cybersecurity incident was carried out by those able to find weaknesses in the way VA authenticates community care health care providers using veterans care agreements and processes payments for their services.” He goes on to say, “This most recent data breach is unacceptable. It also exposes the fact that VA has not taken the necessary steps to ensure oversight, accountability, and security of the vast financial, health, and other personal data it collects and processes to perform its critical services for America’s veterans. Incidents such as these, impact individual veteran’s lives as well as those who partner with VA to provide services to them. It is imperative VA take aggressive and decisive action to address this current incident and lay out a strategy to prevent such problems from arising in the future.”
Cyber attackers were able to divert an undisclosed number of payments meant for six of the 17,000 community care providers who use the system by using “social engineering techniques and exploiting authentication protocols.” The hacker breached thirteen community care providers, but only six of them actually lost funds. The VA plans to reimburse those providers for the lost payments.
The attackers accessed the customer engagement portal, which is one of 85 systems under a single authority to operate (ATO) managed by the VA’s Financial Services Center.
The personally identifiable information (PII) stolen on 46,000 veterans include details that could easily be used for identity theft or fraud. Social security numbers and financial data were stored in this system, along with names, addresses, phone numbers, and emails.
How the VA Responded
In a press release dated September 14, 2020, the VA confirms that the Financial Services Center took the application offline immediately and began an investigation. A Senate sub-committee pointed to a GAO reportfrom last year, citing four recommendations to assess the damage and improve cybersecurity going forward for the VA and all other federal agencies.
The Veterans Administration is alerting all the victims of this data breach, along with family members and next-of-kin for deceased veterans. They are also providing free credit monitoring services for those veterans whose social security numbers were exposed. Veterans can expect to receive additional information through the mail with instructions on protecting their personal data. The VA mentioned that if veterans do not receive a notification, their information was not included in the data breach.