An I-Team hidden camera investigation found some tri-state salvage yards could be virtual playgrounds for potential cyber crooks.
For a few dollars' admission, I-Team producers were able to walk through a Connecticut "pick and pull" lot, rummaging unsupervised through wrecked cars and sifting through dozens of personal documents littered in backseats, glove boxes and trunks.
The treasure trove of sensitive information included names, addresses, dates of birth, medical records, legal records and what appeared to be a Social Security number.
"It doesn’t surprise me that so much information was found in a salvage yard," said David Velazquez, the former acting agent in charge of Newark's FBI division.
People keep all sorts of items in their cars, including old CDs, clothes, golf clubs and electronics. But it may be the crumpled-up documents left on floor mats that are most valuable to identity thieves.
Velazquez told the I-Team even one or two bits of information can help an impostor assemble an identity profile.
“Identity thieves are very good at putting pieces of a puzzle together. So once they acquire a name that they can match up with an address, or a date of birth or a social security number, they can search for the other pieces,” he said.
The I-Team was unable to reach the owner of the Connecticut salvage yard for comment.
In some junkyards, like Union Auto Wreckers in New Jersey, it is much harder to troll for personal papers because owners don't allow customers to roam freely without supervision.
Manager Chris Slack said he's seen drivers leave all sorts of sensitive information behind over the years.
"I’ve seen laptops. I’ve seen social security cards, insurance papers. Everything you don’t want to leave," Slack said.
The I-Team inquired with attorneys general in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, but could identify no laws or regulations in the tri-state requiring salvage yards to dispose of personal information left behind in wrecked vehicles.
The I-Team saw no signs warning about belongings in cars or about not taking personal items and information from the vehicles. Producers also received no verbal warnings from employees.
Velazquez said the most effective way to protect against junkyard identity thieves is to invest in a paper shredder.
“The leaving behind of these documents may be considered no big deal by the general public, but it’s a big deal for the common criminal,” he said.
Slack agreed divers should frequently clear out personal documents from their vehicles, because no one walks out the door expecting her or his car to be totaled.
"Don’t bring your passport and social security and all your personal documents into the car and then leave them for a month," Slack said. "You never know what can happen."