The Veterans Benefits Administration takes on fraud against veterans

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For the Veterans Benefits Administration, fraud and identity theft is costly, for both the veterans it serves and for the agency itself. December being National Identity Theft Prevention and Awareness Month, VBA has programs in place to protect its own assets and to help veterans protect theirs. For more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to VBA’s chief financial officer, Charles Tapp.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Tapp, good to have you on.

Charles Tapp: Tom, thanks a lot for having me on today. Always count it a privilege to be able to share insights about what we’re doing for veterans.

Tom Temin: All right. Now, you are the CFO at VBA. So just give us a sense of what you oversee. There’s a lot of programs there in which money comes out from the government to those veterans.

Charles Tapp: No, absolutely. So I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to serve as the chief financial officer here at the Veterans Benefits Administration, where we have oversight responsibility for approximately $150 billion of resources that are targeted to deliver benefits and services to veterans in a manner that honors their service. Specifically, in my role, I have responsibility for all of the traditional CFO stuff — you got accounting and finance and budgeting and financial services. But one of the special roles I have in my responsibility is also fraud prevention, and the oversight that we provide to make sure that we keep our veterans safe. And we take that responsibility very seriously, in terms of making sure we’re delivering those benefits in a manner that’s both safe and secure for our veteran population.

Tom Temin: And of course, in the online age, there is no shortage of imagination on how to get people to give up credentials, or how to get money from the government. What are the scams you’re hearing about most frequently these days that are targeted to veterans?

Charles Tapp: Yea, a lot of the scams that we’re seeing targeted towards veterans are some of the same scams you’re seeing in the general population. You see emails that are coming from unnamed sources, or where links are somewhat suspicious. We’re also having veterans who receive phone calls that are not generated or initiated by VA. And you’re certainly also seeing some online fraud. So we’re seeing the full spectrum as folks are seeing out there in the civilian sector as well.

Tom Temin: And so that really has a two-edged sword, then, for you. In the one hand, it could deny a legitimate veteran who’s eligible for a program access to it. And at the same time, it could trigger improper payments coming out from VBA to some scammer.

Charles Tapp: Now you’re 100%. Right. And again, we try our very best to provide different venues and avenues for veterans to access their benefits. Whether it be, again, through phone calls from a national call center or online through va.gov, we want to make sure our veterans are able to get access to us as easily and quickly as possible, just like they do in their private lives with their normal banks and other financial transactions. But as you’ve already articulated, with that access, there becomes opportunities for fraudsters and scammers to have access to us as well.

Tom Temin: So what are some of the steps that you take within VBA to make sure that doesn’t happen, so that you can verify those applicants.

Charles Tapp: So on a broad scale, we’re using data analytics so that we’re constantly surveying and scanning the network for instances where we see potential fraudulent activities. For example, if you have a veteran who hasn’t called VA in five years, and now we’ll suddenly see them calling and accessing their va.gov account. Those are instances where we may put a little bit more scrutiny on those because they’re acting outside of their normal tolerances. The other things that we’re doing in our national call centers is we’re going through additional protocols to verify the identity of a veteran when they call in, so that we can truly confirm that who we’re speaking to is the person that’s intended, and is authorized to make calls and changes on behalf of a veteran.

Tom Temin: And beyond passwords, do use some of the third party data providers that have lots of personal information on people use to verify identities commercially?

Charles Tapp: Well, we don’t want to necessarily go into the details about what we use, because we don’t want to tip off any fraudsters, but the one thing I will say, because you keyed in on it, we always advise our veterans to be conscious and careful about their digital profile online. So Facebook and Twitter, when they start sharing a lot of personal information, to your point, about what was your favorite car, what was your first car, what color was it? Those also common questions you may see, as you go establish your online presence. So we advise folks to be very conscious and careful about using that personal information on a broad scale. We also encourage folks to make sure that, in cases when they’re using va.gov, to use multi-factor identification, because we want to make sure, again, that you’re using all the tools that we have at veteran’s disposal to truly protect their identity.

Tom Temin: And so you tell them if you had that 1969 GTO, maybe keep that picture off of Facebook.

Charles Tapp: Absolutely. And like I said, we do recognize that folks like to share, and certainly like to tout those cool cars they had in yesteryear, but we also say be careful about sharing that information too broadly.

Tom Temin: Alright, we’re speaking with Charles Tapp. He’s chief financial officer of the Veterans Benefits Administration. And what other advice do you give out to the veterans? And I imagine this must have a generational aspect to it, because you still got some of the oldsters that are from Korea, World War II around. A very different digital profile perhaps than those that are younger.

Charles Tapp: Absolutely. So we always say, you know, as you’re going out there and establishing your passwords, trying to use passwords that, again, that are commonly associated with you. Again, back to using your online profile, so if your wife’s name is Judy, we highly discourage you from using your wife’s name, certainly as your password. We also recommend that folks change their passwords frequently, and that they use things that aren’t easily guessed or associated again with them in the personal profile. We also recommend that they don’t share their pins with family members or friends. And as silly as that may sound, it happens more frequently than you can imagine. So those are definitely tips we talk about, in terms of safeguarding your personal profile. We also make sure that as you receive emails, if they look suspicious, they probably are. So be careful about those. We also let folks know that when you change your direct deposit information with us, we’ll always follow up that with a letter to say, hey, we received this change on this particular date, and to confirm, was it you and if it wasn’t a please call us. And at any time, if a veteran receives a phone call that they don’t believe is from VA, and they’re suspicious in any way, we advise them to hang up immediately, and call us back at our national call center at 1-800-827-1000. And we can certainly then confirm if it was us calling and also to walk them through confirming identity and then any questions they may have about their account.

Tom Temin: Because VBA does contact people by telephone, unlike some other agencies. You do that routinely, the reach out, to make sure that they know what’s available to them in the first place.

Charles Tapp: Yes, and primarily for veterans who are in their first year transition from military service to veteran status, we reach out to him through the VA Solid Start program. And that program is targeted to make sure veterans understand their benefits, and also to make sure if they need any help, or have any suicidal ideations, that we’re able to address those issues with them. So you’re correct. In the first year of transition, we absolutely are deliberate about reaching out to our veterans. But when we reach out, generally speaking, we don’t ask for other than to identify that we are speaking to the veteran that we’re intending to. We don’t ask you for a whole lot of PII information when we initiate those calls.

Tom Temin: Got it. So that’s a good clue, if someone is asking for a social security number or service records, that kind of stuff. Don’t give it.

Charles Tapp: Those will be absolute flags up front. And again, if it was ever happened, we immediately ask the veterans hang up, and then call us back the national call center.

Tom Temin: And while we have you, how are things going on the claims processing end of things? The backlogs wax and wane, depending on what’s going on. And I guess you got some help, in some of the recent legislation to staff up on that front?

Charles Tapp: Absolutely. So as of the end of November, our backlog was about 257,000 claims in the backlog. Some of those were as of legislation that came out last summer. And it also some additional claims associated with Agent Orange that entered the backlog more recently. We are very focused in delivering the terms of the actions that we’re taking. And we’re currently in the process of hiring a little over 2000 full-time equivalents, or new staff members, to help us process those claims so that we can take care of those both timely and accurately. We’re also working very diligently and deliberately to make sure those folks are trained and are brought on board systematically. So, again, that they can engage and move those claims out of the backlog so that veterans can truly receive their benefits timely and accurately.

Tom Temin: And given all those programs, how long does it take to train someone to be able to accurately convey that information and get the backlog cleared? You know, be able to take on a case?

Charles Tapp: Absolutely. So to get someone fully trained is about 18 months. But generally speaking, once we onboard them, we train them on some more of the high touch, easier tasks so they can become functional relatively quickly after they come on board. To be fully trained to take care of full spectrum of different types of claims is about 18 months.

Tom Temin: And fair to say, you’re looking for veterans to hire for those jobs.

Charles Tapp: Absolutely. We are very veteran friendly. About 57% of our current workforce are veterans. And as a service-connected veteran myself, we are highly encouraged and enthused about bringing other heroes who like to serve their fellow heroes as a part of VBA.

Tom Temin: Charles Tapp is chief financial officer at the Veterans Benefits Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.

Charles Tapp: Thank you again for having me today.

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