I-TEAM: Careful where you charge your smartphone

Experts warn your personal information is easy for others to get

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It has become a habit in the age of smartphones: charge where and when you can, including vehicles. But you need to be careful where you decide to plug in your charging cord. 

Information lives in cars in ways you may not expect. Most of us routinely give up that information when we sync or plug in our smartphones in a rental car or ride-sharing services like Uber.

"So, in this case, it's downloading your phone book. Notice, it didn't ask you if it was ok, it just started doing it," digital security expert Kevin Johnson told the I-TEAM's Tarik Minor when they plugged in to charge while sitting in a rental car.

Johnson, who is the CEO of Secure Ideas in Jacksonville, is hired by corporations to try and hack their products. 

"This has a Wi-Fi hotspot, right?" Johnson showed Tarik.  "Which means, if we were to turn that on, and somebody used that Wi-Fi hotspot to browse the internet, the car actually has a record of where you browsed. So talk about all the stuff about privacy issues going on right now, your car is recording what places you browsed to,"

Johnson warned Tarik that what may seem like a simple convenience in car, can end up costing you so much more.

'The thought process is, let's make this as convenient and as easy for the end viewer, but we don't really think about the footprints we leave behind," Johnson said, adding it makes it easier for the criminal.

Uber driver Julie Vargas said she is aware of the privacy danger people face when plugging into her car to charge.

"It's pretty dangerous. It's a little personal," she said.

While Vargas only drives a couple of nights a week -- typically the weekends -- she said most of her passengers want to plug in and charge their phones.

"Probably eight times out of 10," she said. "They usually have their own cords sometimes, too."

But, when Vargas is a passenger, she never connects.

"I know that my call log and information can be downloaded to their car," she said.

She is aware of the data dangers, however, those jumping in her backseat aren't. In fact, she said the opportunity to discreetly download her passengers' information presented itself early on.

"Probably after the first 10 rides or so, I'm like, oh, it's giving me an option to download. So I would just say 'no' obviously, because I am an honest person."

But not everyone is honest.

"We actually have an identify fraud part of auto theft now," said 25-year police veteran Sgt. Tracey Hicks. 

He shared one case where phone syncing helped arrest a suspect who was illegally taking cars off the dealership lot where he was employed.

"Well, he was actually syncing his phone to all of these other vehicles, so when we went back to the lot and pulled all of the suspected vehicles, his phone number was logged into every single one of those vehicles," explained Hicks. "We catch these guys."

Like the latest technology, this trend is new, but it has caught the attention of Capitol Hill.

"Congress needs to respond," said Congressman Gene Green,a Texas democrat who is a member of the U.S. House subcommittee of Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection. "Data is gold."

Green and his colleagues recently included privacy language in the proposed "Safely Ensuring Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution Act" or the "SELF DRIVE Act."

"I think we really need a national law to make sure, whether it be Lyft, whether it be Uber, whether it be any other rental car that you use temporarily, that that information stays with you," Green said.

And your information is what thieves want, exactly what Casey Champagne discovered when her car was broken into. 

She shared a photo that shows exactly what wasn't taken.

"They left the money in the car!  This was all about information," she said.

Experts say the best protective measure is the simplest thing to do.

Remember when your parents told you not to talk to strangers? Well, the same thing applies to your smartphone. Don't allow your smartphone to talk to a strange vehicle.

"You obviously have your phone locked for a reason, but handing it to someone you don't know, you're asking for it," warned Sgt. Hicks.

Protect your privacy 

1. Only sync or charge in trusted vehicles: We were raised not to trust strangers. Apply the same practice when in a strange vehicle and you want to hear your playlist or get a charge.

2. Remember the valet function: Check to see if your vehicle is equipped with one. It will temporarily block access to your vehicle's information.

3. Keep software up to date: Your car computer is like your smartphone. Keep it current with technology as updates may provide security and performance enhancements.

4. Selling or renting: Consult your owner's manual as well as your dealer for guidelines on how to scrub your vehicle's information by resetting and removing pivotal information.

5. Car applications: Reset or delete any of them that may have your personal information.

6. Garage door programming: When selling your car or turning in a lease, always reset all programming.