- ID.me is an identity verification service that has contracts with many federal agencies, including the IRS.
- The Department of Veterans Affairs has been using ID.me since 2019 as part of a $32 million contract.
- Hundreds of veterans and caregivers have been locked out of VA services due to various problems with ID.me, Insider found.
ID.me, a company founded by a former Army officer, has been blocking hundreds of veterans from accessing benefits and getting other crucial help, according to an investigation by Insider.
The startup offers an identity-verification service that promises to help agencies across the US root out fraud. While ID.me and many of its customers say the company has successfully done this, the technology has also hindered people’s access to government support.
A public record request by Insider revealed more than 700 complaints about ID.me to the Department of Veterans Affairs from October 2021 to January 2022. Those four months featured sometimes-harrowing stories of aging former military members suffering in VA hospital while their spouses or children tried desperately to jump through inscrutable technical hoops to prove their identity.
In recent years, states and government agencies have embraced new technology to help deal with a surge of applications for unemployment support and other benefits. ID.me has sold its identity verification tool to 27 state unemployment programs and several federal agencies, including the VA. The VA says more than 1 million people logged in via ID.me in roughly the past year.
The complaints highlight other problems with the service, especially for caregivers, family members and veterans with limited access to technology and who are elderly, poor, or live outside the US. For these veterans and their families, ID.me represented a new technical hurdle over an already complex and sprawling system of benefits and services.
HELP! I am trying to apply for health benefits as well as the financial benefits for my 90-year-old father who has Alzheimer’s and is also a veteran. He is unable to do the application himself and … I can’t verify his identity through ID me.
ID.me’s technology and approach have also raised privacy concerns and at least one agency, the Internal Revenue Service, is considering alternatives now.
“We are deeply committed to a good customer experience,” said Patrick Dorton, who runs a PR firm that represents ID.me. He said that ID.me helped agencies remotely verify identities through the pandemic, a time when in-person verification options were limited.
The VA started using ID.me in 2019 as part of a $32 million contract. In October, the agency set up a new helpline called Ask VA that requires veterans to authenticate themselves through ID.me or two government-run verification options. Insider’s public record request found 734 complaints about ID.me submitted to Ask VA from its launch to January 2022.
‘Intrusive and unignified’
In January 2020, an 85-year-old veteran had a stroke that left him unable to see or speak. As he lay in a VA hospital bed, his child tried to access his medical records. ID.me required the patient to verify his identity.
“He’s laying in a hospital bed in a hospital gown, blind, unable to talk, hooked up and drugged up,” the child wrote to the VA’s helpline. “This is far too personally intrusive and unignified, to conduct a video conference with some unknown support tech and ID.me.”
This person’s mother had power of attorney over the veteran, but she was struggling with the technology.
“I have to do this for them because my parents are not tech savvy at all,” the child wrote. “My father has never even sat down at a computer or used a keyboard. They’re countryfolk.”
After answering all necessary questions, uploading the required documents, and submitting a selfie, this person said ID.me wouldn’t validate their father’s identity.
“Now they want to do a video conference call with my father from his hospital bed,” the child said. This person went so far as to contact the CEO of ID.me, Blake Hall. The executive said “the law prevents him from validating identity with anyone but the individual,” and that they needed to be registered as his caregiver within the VA’s system, according to the child’s complaint to the VA.
The VA says ID.me doesn’t require a selfie for validating VA accounts. Dorton, ID.me’s outside spokesperson, told Insider that it’s an organization’s responsibility (in this case, the VA’s) to approve someone as a caregiver and give them access to someone’s documents. That caregiver would have to make their own ID.me account, Dorton said.
The episode, and similar issues uncovered by Insider’s public record request, are particularly concerning for a company that got its start catering to former members of the military. Hall, the former Army officer, founded the business as TroopSwap, a marketplace for veteran discounts, before shifting it to an identity verification tool.
More than 19 million Americans and their families rely on the VA for services like healthcare, banking, retirement, education, and GI bill payments, and the agency claims to operate the largest integrated health system in the US. Even small fractures in someone’s ability to access these sprawling benefits can have outsized effects.
My records already state that I am homeless and have no phone. My VA records are up-to-date. And the closest [Regional Office] is three hours away… ID.me told me to contact the Department of Veteran Affairs.
These issues were compounded by Ask VA’s reliance on ID.me. Veterans seeking help with creating an account or verifying their identities were often met with dead ends from the agency, which required they verify their identities before being helped.
One woman, who said she was struggling to create an account while dealing with her veteran husband’s illness, was told she was “unauthenticated” and would first need to log in through ID.me or another service before asking a question. Many complaints in the document about verification through ID.me received similar responses.
“Is there anyone there that can help me. This is a frustrating matter that, when you are dealing with a dying husband, it’s just too much to deal with,” she wrote. “He’s in hospice at home and he’s on oxygen and barely breathing… We are a family in crisis and we could really use help.”
In a statement to Insider, a VA spokesperson confirmed that the agency would not provide specific answers “if the inquirer is unauthenticated” but that “customers can use Ask VA (AVA) without providing authentication to ask generic questions about their VA benefits and services. ” They added that someone needing help with ID.me should contact ID.me customer support or visit a VA-specific help article..
Technical hurdles to proving identity
Several people said they encountered technical issues with ID.me, such as an error with two-factor authentication or web page timeouts. Others said they were rejected from making an ID.me account without reason, or that ID.me customer service was unhelpful.
Veterans living abroad found particular difficulty. They said ID.me rejected identity documents from outside the US, reported their logins as fraudulent, refused to recognize international phone numbers, and in some cases blocked access completely.
“I have a German phone number and the option of putting +49 in the country is not offered,” one veteran living abroad wrote. “I’ve been unable to access and apply for my education benefits as well as my healthcare for over three months due to the ID.me authentication app not working.”
Another veteran based in Colombia accused ID.me of forgetting that “there are thousands of US [veterans] that’re overseas.”
Dorton, the spokesperson, said that ID.me does accept non-US documents, though he acknowledged that the company had blocked IP addresses “from certain countries associated with cyberattacks.” He said those restrictions had since been removed.
The VA’s other options for identity verification — a Premium My HealtheVet account, or a Premium DS Logon account — may not be easier.
In order to get a Premium My HealtheVet account, a person either has to make an ID.me account, or verify their identity at one of the VA’s health facilities, which can be difficult for some veterans, especially those living abroad. A video call with a VA health facility is also an option.
To get a Premium DS Logon account, a person has to enroll in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System, which similarly requires verification at one of the VA’s physical facilities, or by reading social security and banking information over the phone.
While ID.me doesn’t currently use facial recognition for its VA contract, its use of facial recognition and other business practices have come under scrutiny from privacy-focused and anti-surveillance advocacy groups.
A coalition of more than 40 activist groups — including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Algorithmic Justice League — published a letter on Monday imploring all federal and state agencies to stop using ID.me.
ID.me recently announced that beginning March 1, all users “will be able to delete their selfie or photo.” ID.me also said that people can opt out of submitting a selfie for facial recognition, and instead have a video call with a human — a step normally reserved for when ID.me can’t verify an identity through a face and document match. Dorton told Insider that the announcement “addresses some of the feedback” from location.
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