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Stolen VA laptop sold off 'back of a truck'

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More details of how a stolen laptop containing the personal details of up to 26.5m US veterans was recovered have emerged.

A thief stole the laptop from the home of a worker at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in early May during the course of a burglary. At the time, VA officials were quick to blame the data analyst involved for violating agency policy in taking the laptop home. However, the worker, who was placed on administrative leave during the course of an inquiry, had written permission to take the sensitive data away from VA offices in order to work from home.

Last week, VA head honcho Jim Nicholson announced that the laptop had been recovered. A preliminary investigation by FBI officials suggests that data has not been accessed since the laptop was stolen, easing fears that the exposed data might have fallen into the hands of identity thieves. As Reg readers have pointed out that still leaves the possibility that a forensics savvy data thief might have lifted the data. No incidents of ID theft linked to the theft have been reported at of yet, cause for cautious optimism that the whole security flap was simply (as it first) appeared a random burglary.

But how was the purloined PC recovered? NBC reporter Pete Williams has been able to fill in some of the blanks after talking to investigators involved in the case.

The famous laptop and its hard drive ended up for sale on a "black market" near a subway station near Wheaton outside of Washington DC. We're talking about the type of market where goods are sold off the "back of a truck", according to Williams's sources.

The unnamed buyer - who bought both components - later chanced upon flyers requesting the return of the kit at a local supermarket. After discovering that the serial numbers of his newly acquired laptop matched those of the stolen equipment, he reportedly brokered the return of the laptop through a friend in the US Park Police. No doubt the $50,000 reward offered for the return of the laptop greased the wheels of this deal. We'd be a tad suspicious about the circumstances of this return but, in the absence of any concrete evidence, let's give the man involved the benefit of the doubt. The return of the laptop has allowed VA officials to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Information held on the laptop included the names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers of millions of former US servicemen and women dating back to 1975. VA officials went public to warn veterans of the incident. FBI and local law enforcement officials were involved in investigating the security breach. ®

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