Copying Machines and Identity Theft

publication date: May 21, 2010

Do you copy, fax or scan documents - at home, your office, at the local library or retail copy store, on copying and other machines built since 2002? If so, you probably are unaware that digital copying machines (which may also fax and scan documents) contain relatively easily accessed files on their hard drives of every page you and other users have copied, scanned, faxed  and even emailed on those machines.

And, a recent story done by CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian showed how used copiers at warehouses are being resold with all sorts of confidential information on them. When you think about the kinds of documents we all copy on machines, these digital copiers provide a gold mine for identity theft crooks.

The CBS reporter paid a visit to a New Jersey warehouse that resells used copying machines and took along John Juntunen, whose Sacramento-based company Digital Copier Security developed software that scrubs all the data on hard drives. For $300 they bought four copiers without knowing where the copiers came from or what they contained.

"It took Juntunen just 30 minutes to pull the hard drives out of the copiers. Then, using a forensic software program available for free on the Internet, he ran a scan - downloading tens of thousands of documents in less than 12 hours."

One machine, from a New York construction company, contained "...95 pages of pay stubs with names, addresses and social security numbers; and $40,000 in copied checks."

Another machine, from Affinity Health Plan, a New York-based insurer contained 300 pages of individual medical records, a potentially serious breach of federal privacy law.

When pressed by CBS News about such a breach, Affinity Health Plan issued a statement saying, in part, "...we are taking the necessary steps to ensure that none of our customers' personal information remains on other previously leased copiers, and that no personal information will be released inadvertently in the future."

Ed McLaughlin, President of Sharp Imaging, the digital copier company, was asked by CBS "Has the industry failed, in your mind, to inform the general public of the potential risks involved with a copier?"

His response: "Yes, in general, the industry has failed," McLaughlin said.

"In 2008, Sharp commissioned a survey on copier security that found 60 percent of Americans ‘don't know' that copiers store images on a hard drive. Sharp tried to warn consumers about the simple act of copying."

"It's falling on deaf ears," McLaughlin said. "Or people don't feel it's important, or 'we'll take care of it later.'"

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself

Simply, you should not copy anything on a copying machine that isn't your own that you wouldn't want to fall into someone else's hands. If you copy documents at your office, local copy shop or other places, you have no control over and no way of knowing what will happen to that copying machine and its hard drive.

Unfortunately, there are the many companies that you do business with and that have copies or scanned images of your personal information. Reputable financial institutions do have proper protections in place. This is another reason to think twice before doing business with companies or individuals who you don't know much about or who likely lack the proper safeguards for protecting your personal information.

Companies like Digital Copier Security, the firm that helped CBS News with their investigation, have products and services to help protect your copiers' hard drive. Be warned, however, that the costs can quickly add up.

When you dispose/recycle your copying machine, either remove the hard drive or ensure that the recycling organization erases images from it before recycling the machine. Unfortunately, doing this yourself isn't easy or cost effective. The CBS News piece reported, "All the major manufacturers told us they offer security or encryption packages on their products. One product from Sharp automatically erases an image from the hard drive. It costs $500." Ouch!

Finally, when you go shopping for copying machines for your home or home-office, you could buy a less expensive machine that lacks digital technology and the associated hard drive. (Standalone copying machines are fading out and being replaced by multi-function machines which can copy, scan and fax.)



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Eric Tyson is the only best-selling personal finance author who has an extensive background as an hourly-based financial advisor and who does not accept speaking fees, endorsement deals or fees of any type from companies in the financial services industry or product or service providers recommended in his articles, books and his publications.