Junkyards can be gold mines for criminals

I-TEAM finds personal information left behind that can lead to ID theft

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Automobile junkyards have turned into a treasure trove for identity thieves who -- in just minutes -- are able to obtain enough personal information from a stranger to either steal or sell another person's identity. The I-TEAM went undercover to two junkyards in two counties to expose how easy this is, and how to protect your identity with some easy steps.

In just two hours' time at the junkyards in Clay and Duval Counties, some of what we found includes:

  • Social Security card (with full SS#)
  • Driver's licenses
  • PIN for a banking account along with routing numbers
  • Various medical records
  • Various banking records
  • Checkbooks
  • Uncashed checks

The scary thing about this I-TEAM investigation is that anyone could do the exact same thing. Two hours' time was more than enough time to gather personal information from junked cars -- enough information to potentially steal the identities of seven different people.

The peoples' information we found may have escaped a wreck or simply sold their cars. However, what they left behind was precious.

"I've got some information that I found that is yours that I want to return to you," the I-TEAM told a woman named Keisha at her home as News4Jax went to return the information found. "This is your driver's license, and this is your Social Security card."

"Where the hell did you get that from?" Keisha asked.

It was personal information left behind in a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu that we found in a local junkyard. One of the documents appeared to include her PIN number.

"Oh my God, I thought I cleaned all of that out," Keisha said.

Keisha tells us she sold her Malibu about eight months ago to a friend, but in her junked car, the I-TEAM found her banking statements and various account numbers which detailed weeks of direct deposits and money transfers.

"I've been messed up with the IRS for real, for real. Oh my God, I'm so happy that ya'll found this," Keisha said.

Keisha wasn't the only one who left critical information behind. We also found a copy of a Middleburg man's driver's license, as well as hospital discharge paperwork which includes the patient's name, address and a glimpse into his medical history.

"Do you think people underestimate the criminal mind?" the I-TEAM asked Identity theft expert Kevin Johnson.

"I know they underestimate the criminal mind, and most people don't take the necessary precautions to protect their identity," Johnson responded.

Johnson warns obtaining something as simple as a college loan bill -- like one we found -- is like hitting a homerun for identity thieves. All that's on the paper is the student's name, address, account number and a bill for the amount of $6,700.

"I could pretend to be that debt collector," said Johnson. "I can say, 'I'm from ACT. You received a bill from us. We haven't heard back from you. You owe us almost $7,000, but if you pay it right now, we'll settle for five thousand. Do you have a credit card?' And now, you lost the money."

The I-TEAM also found hospital discharge paperwork in a car in a Jacksonville junkyard. Again, it included the patient's name, address and account number. The documents also contains the victim's medical and prescription information with an invoice attached.

Digging into the details, Johnson reveals that a woman named Jessica -- who lives in Green Cove Springs -- is relying on her primary insurance company to pay for her hospital visit.

"We could literally call her up, pretend to be the hospital and say, 'We have a problem with your paperwork. We can't process through your insurance, but if you can give us more information, great. If not, then we're sorry, we'll have to bill you directly and you'll be responsible for $30,000 worth of expenses. But keep in mind, your insurance could handle it if we clear this up. Can you give me your Social Security number? Are you still with the healthcare?'" Johnson explained.

According to statistics from the Bureau of Justice:

  • An identity theft occurs every two seconds somewhere in the country.
  • Obtaining a government document like a driver's license is the most common way thieves get access to victims' credit cards, banking information and loans.
  • The medical sector now has more identity theft than any other industry. It's also the hardest identity theft to uncover because patients rarely review their status until they get sick. (WATCH: I-TEAM investigation into medical ID theft)

Your passport number, your mother's maiden name and where you are born are other key pieces of information that can lead to your identity being stolen.

As for Keisha, theft experts say with the information she left behind, someone could assume her identity in a matter of hours.

"We can become her right now," said Johnson. "I can fill out requests for credit cards as her, I can put in a change of address form so all of her mail came to me so she wouldn't even know that she was getting this stuff. So yes, we could absolutely steal her identity."

"Will what we found change the way you protect your personal information?" the I-TEAM asked Keisha.

"Yes, it sure does," she responded. "I'm going to make sure all my information is removed from my vehicle when I sell it or after I get into an accident."

As for the biggest mistake people make, the I-TEAM found filling out an application -- like for a job or credit card -- and leaving that inside the car. The best advice is not to leave any personal information in your car at any time.

You may be wondering why the I-TEAM is revealing this information, worried about giving criminals instructions or suggestions. We're told junkyards tell people to take items that contain personal information out of their vehicles to prevent this exact type of crime from happening. Junkyards do this so they don't carry any liability once the vehicle is left.

Simple ways you can protect yourself from ID theft

Channel 4's crime and safety analyst Gil Smith says he is not surprised the I-TEAM discovered personal information left behind in vehicles at junkyards. He recommends going through your cars now and taking anything out that can be used to steal your identity.

Smith says many consider their cars to be an extension of their homes, but you can't store sensitive information in there. Whether you are selling your car or not, he says never do it.

When getting things out of your car, Smith advises you not forget the glove box, trunk or any other place in your vehicle where you may have put something that can ultimately compromise your safety. That includes:

  • Sales receipts
  • Bank statements -- even if they doesn't show your account number
  • Anything with personal financial information on it

Smith also warns, if you receive phone calls, be aware of the information you reveal over the phone. If someone says you owe money, Smith suggests you hang up and then call back the institution directly.

Steps to take if you think your identity has been compromised

Tom Stephens, president of the Better Business Bureau of Northeast Florida, suggests the following steps for anyone who thinks they have become a victim of identity theft:

  • Contact the entity where the account or card has been compromised, have them freeze or cancel card and give you a new one
  • Go to the Federal Trade Commission’s website, fill out the identity theft affidavit, get it signed and notarized
  • Put alerts on all three of your credit bureau reports (Equifax, TransUnion, Experian) – write a letter, send it certified
  • Go to local law enforcement, file a police report – the police report and ID theft affidavit are your defense to issues that arise
  • Follow the step-by-step process on the FTC website to create a file to keep track of the process

Florida is No. 1 for identity theft

Stephens says Florida is No. 1 in the country in cases of ID theft per 100,000 residents. Stephens says Florida has the largest over 65 population in the country. That age group tends to have more money, accounts, more medical records and more likely to receive government benefits. He says while seniors are not nearly as gullible as they were 10 years ago, there are still more opportunities to be victims of ID theft.

One important note from Stephens regards minors. He calls them "gold mines" for ID theft. Children may not know their identities were compromised until years later when they become adults and go to get a loan or something that requires a credit check.

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