Published: Jan 30, 2014 2:48 PM EST
Updated: Jan 30, 2014 6:55 PM EST

FORT MYERS, Fla. - They served their country but now the card that's supposed to help veterans may be putting them at risk for identity theft and it's a problem the Department of Veteran Affairs has known about for at least two years.

When the VA first issued new medical cards in 2004, they claimed the cards protected the vet's identity. Fast-forward ten years and we found out, that's not necessarily the case anymore.

WINK News Call for Action found that a crook only needs a smart phone and a free barcode scanner app, and then any vet with one of these so-called protective cards is vulnerable.

It took us all of ten seconds to get veteran Jim Murphy's social security number.

"That's me.... That's my social security number," he said when we showed him what the scanner app pulled up.

Cape Coral resident Chris Williams served 15 months in Afghanistan as an army mechanic.

"Anytime you check in for an appointment, for medications, anything, you swipe your card before you do anything else," he explained about the importance of those VA cards.

When we showed him how easy it was for crooks to steal his information he said he was, "pretty scared."

Even worse, veterans like Chris Williams and Jim Murphy say they never knew this was possible, until we showed them.

"I think the VA should definitely get on top of that," said Williams. "Or get with the people who are making these apps that make it scan-able, to make it not scan-able. That was just too easy."

With this information a crook can easily steal a veteran's identity, wipe out their accounts and claim benefits meant for the deserving. There are at least 20 million veterans in the U.S., though it's not clear how many of them carry these VA I.D. cards.

In December of 2011 the VA published a report and at the top the VA claimed the I.D. cards protected the veteran's identity because it doesn't publish the social security number. Buried at the bottom of the page, you'll find a warning which admits the bar code can easily be scanned, revealing private information.

Since we discovered that the VA has known about this issue for more than two years, we wanted to know when it would be fixed.

A spokesperson with the VA sent us this statement:

"The existing VIC ID card was put into use in 2004.  At time of receiving the card, Veterans have always been advised to safeguard it as they would a Social Security card or a credit card, to protect their identity information.

VA has begun to move to the next generation of identification.  The new card, the Veteran Health Identification Card (VHIC), provides a more secure means of identification for Veterans because the Social Security number and birth date will no longer be contained on either the magnetic strip or the bar code.  Instead, the VHIC will display the Veteran's unique Electronic Data Interchange Personnel Identifier (EDIPI) number as the "member ID" on the front of the card and it is embedded in the magnetic strip. The EDIPI is the Department of Defense's internal number.

Once necessary software changes have been made so applications used in VA health care facilities can read the VHIC bar code and magnetic stripe, VA will begin issuing the VHIC this year and replacing enrolled Veterans' old cards.  Veterans who have had their cards on hold since September due to the transition to the new format (without their Social Security Number) will begin receiving VHIC cards early in February. Additionally, VA plans a communications campaign to Veterans in February  including the following:

    direct mailing,
    social media messages,
    launch of a VA internet VHIC website, and
    posters and information cards to be sent to VA facilities for posting in high traffic areas.

The VHIC will become interoperable with DoD.

Regarding steps VA has taken to notify Veterans of risk with the existing cards --  The card carrier that accompanied the VIC when it was issued to Veterans warns that the card should be kept safe and secure.  In 2012 and 2013, VA included the notification to Veterans in their personalized Veterans Health Benefits Handbooks (7.7 million mailings) and through Health Care Benefits Overviews provided to VA medical centers, VA benefits offices, state agencies, and Veterans services organizations.  The VA internet website carries an explanation of the Veterans Identification Card (VIC) and information about safeguarding your VIC.   https://www.va.gov/healthbenefits/access/veteran_identification_card.asp"

The VA tells us that veterans should start getting their new, more secure cards, sometime this year.