Veterans ebenefits accounts wiped out by hackers

Julia LeDoux
February 11, 2019 - 10:45 am

Dreamstime

Imagine not being able to buy groceries, put gas in your car or pay your bills.

That's what three veterans say happened to them when their eBenefits accounts were recently fraudulently accessed and their monthly direct deposits re-routed to banks they have no financial relationship with.

And, sadly, there’s nothing new about the hijacking of eBenefit accounts. It’s been going on for years.

In 2014, more than 5,000 veteran eBenefits accounts were hacked, leading the House of Representatives Veterans Affairs Committee to press the VA for more details on how they were addressing the breach. In response, the Veterans Information Security Improvement Act was introduced but it was never able to get out of a Congressional subcommittee. 

Shanaye Rogers-Sanke, Robert Lomonte and Michelle Wright are all recent victims of hacking. They reached out independently to ConnectingVets to say that their accounts had been fraudulently accessed, their identities and the identities of their spouses and children compromised and monthly allotments delayed due to what they think, are cyber thieves.

For Rogers-Sanke, the nightmare began Feb. 2 when she went to an ATM where she lives in Fairview Height, Illinois. When she tried to withdraw some cash, the unwanted words “insufficient funds” came up on the screen.

She logged onto eBenefits when she returned home, only to find that she was locked out of her account.

“We’re still trying to understand what happened,” the Marine Corps vet and mom of five said. “I’ve never had any trouble logging into my account. I change my password every three months as they request.”

On Feb. 4, she called the VA and was on the phone with staffers there from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“I was told that my deposit has been re-routed from the account we had on file to Wells Fargo,” she said.

Rogers-Sanke said she received a letter from the VA the day after her call stating that they processed a request to change her direct deposit from her bank to Wells Fargo on Jan. 20. The letter also advised her to call a 1-800 number if she didn’t initiate the update.

“My eBenefits were hacked,” she said. “Our demographic and security information were taken out. The lady at the VA told me my information was on the black web.” 

Not only was Rogers-Sanke’s information stolen, but her husband, who is an Army vet, and the couple’s five children’s were exposed as well.

“Something needs to be done,” she said.

Almost the exact same thing that Rogers-Sanke experienced appears to have happened to Robert Lomonte as well. He said he received a letter from the VA on Jan. 20 stating that his eBenefit password had been changed.

“I didn’t think much about it,” he said. “But, a couple of days later, I decided to log on to see what was going on.”

What Lomonte discovered startled him. The bank account where his direct deposit was to be sent had been changed from his financial institution to Citibank.

“I don’t have any type of business with them,” he said.

He was able to see the last four numbers of the account the money was being deposited into, leading Lomonte to contact Citibank.

“They could only tell me that the account was based in New York,” he said. “We’re in Pennsylvania.”

His next move was to contact the VA. Staffers there told him they would put a tracer on it but was initially told that they couldn’t tell him exactly when he would receive his benefits. 

“You’d think they’d have something in place to prevent this,” he said.

Digging further into his account, Lomonte said he discovered that the hackers accessed it from anywhere between 4 to 6 minutes. 

“They knew what they were doing,” he said. “They knew exactly where to go to get my social security number, my bank account information, my service records, my medical records.”

The same scenario also played out for Michelle Wright, who wrote in an email that she did not receive her funds as expected on Feb. 1, learning that they had been rerouted to a banking institution she had never heard of.

“I have had the same direct deposit information for years, barely use eBenefits and can’t understand how this is even possible,” she wrote.

Wright added that all her bills are paid directly from her bank account and that she has been deemed totally disabled.

“This is so traumatizing how this can be done,” she wrote. “Veterans should never have to worry about their personal information, the only source of income being compromised. I am a loss for words, stressed out and my PTSD is at an all-time high.”

Wright wrote that she is contacting the VA, the White House veterans representative, and the FTC.

“I no longer have faith in the government that it protects those that have served and sacrificed,” she wrote.

Lomonte, who is married and has five children, was initially told by the VA that it couldn’t tell him exactly when he would receive his benefits, but like Rogers-Sanke has since received his funds.

A VA spokesperson said that fraud allegations and the security of veterans' information are taken seriously.

"Since 2015, just .06181 percent of VA’s active eBenefits accounts have been accessed fraudulently," the spokesperson said. 

The spokesperson also noted that veterans are the targets of many of the same types of mail, telephone and online fraud that impact society as a whole.

"When a fraud case is reported or suspected, the VA investigates the incident and determines what actions are needed to protect the veteran's benefits, report those responsible for the alleged fraud and make the veteran whole quickly," the spokesperson said. 

According to the VA spokesperson, the agency relies on a Department of Defense authentication service called DS Logon to secure online access to eBenefits. The VA has been collaborating with DoD on security enhancements to the system, the spokesperson added.

Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Carla Gleason said the DS logon is a secure, self-service logon that was created by the Defense Manpower Data Center   ( DMDC) "that allows individuals affiliated with the DoD or the Department of Veterans Affairs access to several websites using a single username and password. "

Gleason said she could not discuss specific methods or techniques used to protect the DoD's computer systems due to operational security reasons. She added that the DMDC supports the VA in its investigations into fraud and "when necessary inform changes to security controls." 

There's also no answer to why the fraudulent access of eBenefits accounts continues to happen, according to both the VA and DoD.

Veterans who suspect they have been the victim of fraud should call VA at 1-800-827-1000 as quickly as possible.  They can also contact VA’s Office of the Inspector General at vaoighotline@va.gov or  1-800-488-8244.

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