Personal information of job applicants exposed in Allentown
Ann Paynter was making her routine stop at Allentown’s recycling center a few weeks ago when something caught her eye as she tossed her items into the paper recycling bin.
“I saw what looked like an application, a job application,” she said.
Looking further, she saw what appeared to be employee time sheets, too.
“I just wanted to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me,” Paynter said. “I pulled out a piece of paper and saw a Social Security number.”
She told me she notified the recycling center’s yard attendant, who told her the papers had been dumped there earlier in the day, Jan. 6, and the contents of the bin were scheduled to be shredded in a few days.
Concerned that people’s sensitive information could be seen by others, Paynter told me she took a few papers, which she photographed and sent to The Morning Call, then shredded.
“You don’t mess with people’s personal information like that,” said Paynter, of Longswamp Township, Berks County. “I’d be furious.”
The paperwork was from Berks & Beyond Employment Services, a staffing agency with offices in eastern and central Pennsylvania, including Allentown, Breinigsville and Reading.
Three job applications Paynter sent The Morning Call included names, Social Security numbers, addresses and phone numbers. Two also included email addresses, employment histories and education histories. The two time sheets contained names and Social Security numbers. Four of the documents were dated, from May and June 2014.
Chris Garner, owner of Berks & Beyond, told me a limited amount of paperwork likely got mixed in by mistake with desks, filing cabinets and computers that were being removed by a hauling service as the agency’s Allentown office cleaned out its basement.
“We don’t take stuff there and just dump it on purpose,” he said.
He doesn’t believe an extensive number of documents with clients’ personal information were put in the recycling bin, but said as of Tuesday his business still was investigating what happened.
“I think it was probably a box that was just grabbed by accident or was probably left in a filing cabinet by accident,” Garner said.
It doesn’t appear that the materials were viewable to the public for long in the recycling bin.
City spokesman Mike Moore said a truck dropped them off about 11:15 a.m. Jan. 6. He said a woman pulled in just before noon and spoke to the recycling center attendant shortly after noon. She showed the attendant office paper with a Social Security number on it and appeared to walk away with papers.
That’s about the time Paynter told me she went there and found the records and spoke with the attendant.
Paynter told me she returned to the recycling center about 2:15 p.m. to take more photos and by then the papers had been covered by other papers in the bin.
Late Jan. 6, Paynter sent photos of the papers she said she found to The Morning Call. I contacted the city the next day and it removed the bin from public access until its contents were taken to a recycling business for disposal Jan. 8, as scheduled.
Moore said the city contacted Berks & Beyond’s Allentown office and was told its cleaning service brought boxes to the center, though the contents of those boxes were not discussed.
Moore told me he couldn’t verify how much paperwork was dropped off, but “it was more than a few dumped boxes.”
Garner told me he doesn’t believe the hauling service, which he would not identify, would have dumped Berks & Beyond’s paperwork at the recycling center if it knew it contained sensitive information. He said his business disposes of sensitive paperwork by shredding it on site. It switched to paperless applications a few years ago, in part to protect clients’ data.
“As time goes on, because we’re paperless, I don’t think we’ll have this issue,” Garner said.
If an extensive number of documents is determined to have been taken to the recycling center, he said, Berks & Beyond will notify clients whose information could have been exposed.
“Obviously, we’re concerned with everybody’s privacy but I don’t think the amount of information would have been significant,” he said.
Julio Camacho of Allentown was upset when I called to tell him his employment application was among those Paynter said she found. He said his information should have been shredded or kept safe.
“Information like that shouldn’t be that easily accessible,” he said.
Camacho told me he’s grateful Paynter discovered the paperwork and shredded his application.
“Thank God that she found it but I don’t know who else might have had their hands on that type of information,” he said.
I also notified Monique Dolan of Breinigsville about her discovered application. Dolan said she found that to be “unsettling” and “disappointing,” but said she wouldn’t hold it against Berks & Beyond if its hauling company put the papers in the bin.
“I shred everything before I throw it out, just for that reason,” Dolan said.
Any amount of personal information placed in a public trash bin can be problematic, said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit public interest research group in San Diego that seeks to empower people with knowledge and tools to protect their privacy.
“Dumpster diving is still one of the top ways that people have fraud committed against them,” she told me.
Employment applications would be especially valuable, she said, because of the types of information they contain.
“This is the kind of mistake that businesses should not be making anymore,” Dixon said.
The Federal Trade Commission has investigated businesses accused of placing personal information in trash bins. In 2010 and 2009, it reached settlements with Rite Aid and CVS over the disposal of items including job applications and customers’ pharmacy labels. The pharmacies were ordered to establish and implement policies for protecting and disposing of consumer and employee information.
The Allentown recycling center, on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near the 15th Street Bridge, has a special locked bin for disposal of confidential documents that need to be shredded.
“Anyone who wants to put materials in the dedicated locked bin just has to alert the attendant,” Moore said.
The Berks & Beyond hauling service “did not indicate to the attendant that they were confidential documents,” he told me. “As a result, they just dumped the boxes in the regular roll-off box for mixed paper.”
Anyone wishing to dispose of confidential documents at the recycling center should see the attendant between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays and between 8 a.m. and noon Saturdays.
“The attendant will put the documents in the city’s secured/locked roll-off box that is transported directly to the shredder at Liberty Recycling,” Moore said.
The Federal Trade Commission suggests businesses keep an inventory of what information they store in files and on computers, keep only information that is necessary, protect their data, dispose of it properly and plan for what to do if there is a security incident.
“What looks like a sack of trash to you can be a gold mine for an identity thief,” the FTC says in its Protecting Personal Information guide for businesses. “Leaving credit card receipts or papers or CDs with personally identifying information in a Dumpster facilitates fraud and exposes consumers to the risk of identity theft.”
It says businesses should shred, burn or pulverize paper records before discarding them and make shredders available throughout the workplace, including near photocopiers. Computers and portable digital devices should be “wiped” of all data before disposal. Deleting files usually isn’t sufficient.
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