2 Investigates: Sensitive documents, personal information uncovered at Bay Area salvage yards

2 Investigates: Sensitive documents, personal information uncovered at Bay Area salvage yards

OAKLAND, Calif. — Auto salvage yards can be a great resource for the do-it-yourselfer in search of spare parts.

2 Investigates found the same yards can also be a gold mine for identity thieves.
At three Pick n Pull locations in the Bay Area, KTVU found sensitive documents containing people’s personal information inside vehicles, from bank account numbers to social security numbers.

The Cars
Salvage yards, also known as dismantlers, such as Pick n Pull buy vehicles directly from individuals, tow companies, auctions, charities and insurance companies. Some of the cars were totaled in accidents, seized by police or handed over by their former owners. For a $2 admission fee, Pick n Pull customers can search the vehicles and remove parts.

Pick n Pull told KTVU it is company policy to clean out the cars, including the removal of potentially sensitive documents, before putting the vehicles out on the lot.

Despite that policy, 2 Investigates found utility bills and traffic court documents inside a Chevy van at Pick n Pull in Oakland.

A Jeep Cherokee on the same lot had a Medi-Cal Choice form, bank statements and ID cards.

Lesson Learned
2 Investigates continued to find people’s personal information inside salvaged vehicles at two Pick n Pull lots in San Jose.
A stack of documents inside a 1995 Honda Accord included an unemployment benefits statement for Jairo Duran of San Jose. Each page of the statement from the California Employment Development Department contained Duran’s full social security number.

KTVU contacted Duran and returned the documents to him.

“Someone else could’ve taken it and they wouldn’t do this,” said Duran. “They would’ve just run away… and try to (open) an account with this.”

Duran says driving on a suspended license cost him a couple of days in jail and his car which, he says, was impounded. “They wanted to charge me almost $1500,” said Duran. “That’s almost the car’s worth, so I wasn’t going to pay again.” Duran says he never had a chance to get his personal documents out of the car.

Protecting Yourself
Identity theft experts say individuals and salvage yard operators bear some responsibility for not securing the personal information discovered by 2 Investigates.

“The idea that thieves are trolling and searching the most unusual places doesn’t surprise me. What kind of does surprise me is that people are leaving so much of that information in their car in the first place,” said Neal O’Farrell, Executive Director of the Identity Theft Council based in Walnut Creek.
O’Farrell says his group is currently working with an identity theft victim who was involved in an accident when he had a heart attack behind the wheel. The car was eventually sold at auction.
“He was like a typical victim,” said O’Farrell. “[he said] ‘I had a lot of information in that car, but I can’t remember how much.'”
O’Farrell says the simplest solution is to remove any personal information from your car that doesn’t need to be there.
“You don’t need to have your birth certificate in the car, you don’t need to have your driver’s license in the car. That’s what your wallet or purse is for. You don’t need to have your bank statements or credit card statements for the last year in your trunk,” said O’Farrell.

No New Tricks
Experts say KTVU’s investigation likely isn’t giving identity thieves any new ideas. The Identity Theft Council estimates there are about 10,000 identity theft rings operating in the United States.
“A lot of them have nothing to do all day but think up new schemes and new places they can find information, so you’re not giving anything away to the thieves by focusing on this issue,” said O’Farrell. “Hopefully, you’re giving an awful lot of information to consumers so that they’ll wake up and maybe, if one in ten, one in twenty go out to their cars and empty it of all the junk that’s not supposed to be there, that’s the best revenge against identity thieves.”

Pick-n-Pull Response
When contacted by KTVU, Pick-n-Pull provided the following response:
“We are an industry leading self-service auto parts store that recycles original manufacturer parts and provides access to customers seeking those parts. End of life vehicles come to our facility in a number of ways including our community donation program. Vehicles are expected to be emptied of any personal items when they come into our facilities. As safety is our first priority we do remove, recycle, and dispose of items to the best of our team’s ability prior to the staging process. We take pride in our customer service and the proper recycling of these vehicles at all our Pick-n-Pull facilities.”
A manager with Pick-n-Pull reiterated that employees are instructed to take personal items out of vehicles before they’re put out on the lot. When asked about the material 2 Investigates found, the manager told KTVU some employees, “do their job well, some don’t.”
The Department of Motor Vehicles reports there were 1,150 licensed salvage yard operators, also known as dismantlers, in California as of January 1, 2014.

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