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Easy Pickings?

Discarded Documents Ripe for Identity Theft

Last year, the Alexandria Police Department investigated more than 100 cases of identity theft and dozens of other white-collar crimes. David Harris understands why.

Harris, an Alexandria resident, went to the city's recycling center on Wheeler Avenue on Jan. 14 to recycle some cardboard boxes. As he and his wife drove up to the bins, they saw several large boxes of material stacked outside the recycling containers.

"It was really pretty annoying because they were in our way," Harris said. "We got out of our car and went to see what they were."

They turned out to be large boxes containing promotional material for hotels and at least three boxes of client records.

"These client records contained travel itineraries, names, addresses, credit card numbers, expiration dates and the cost of the hotels," Harris said. "The tops had come off the boxes, and some of these sheets were simply lying on the ground for anyone to collect. I thought that this was a perfect opportunity for someone who was up to no good to take advantage of these people who had no idea that their personal information was being treated so carelessly."

HARRIS COLLECTED several of the sheets and took them home with him. He sent copies to The Gazette. "I have been a victim of credit-card theft, so I understand what can happen," Harris said. "My wallet was stolen in Italy, and within two hours, someone had charged more than $1,000 to my credit card. We have to do things to protect our credit cards, but businesses need to take precautions to protect our privacy, as well."

The business is JDB Associates Ltd. (Hotels and Resorts Marketing). Stephen Baer and his wife own JDB Associates on North Alfred Street. "This certainly is not the way we handle client records," Baer said. "We have been moving from one office to another and took several boxes of old brochures to the recycling center. My guess is that some old records got mixed in with the brochures that we were disposing of. That's the only thing that makes any sense."

According to police spokesman Amy Bertsch, the company's owner acknowledged the mistake and would welcome someone from the police department to come in to talk to personnel about identity theft and ways to prevent it. "He was very responsive to that suggestion," said Bertsch.

Jennifer De Long, director of the city's recycling programs, noted, "Many small businesses use the recycling center on Wheeler Avenue. As a matter of fact, more businesses use that facility than do residents. We encourage small businesses to shred documents, place shredded material in clear plastic bags and then place the plastic bags in the open recycling containers. Most businesses do this."

Sgt. Robyn Nichols, supervisor of the white-collar crimes unit with the Alexandria Police Department, said she has five detectives who are kept busy investigating these types of crimes.

"This is exactly the type of incident we want to prevent," Nichols said. "Businesses have a responsibility to protect their clients’ personal data. Shredders are not that costly and should be used on all documents that contain personal information."

NICHOLS HAD SOME advice for consumers as well. "Don't leave bills in open mailboxes. If you cannot place them in a locked mailbox, take them to the post office. Also, don't have your Social Security number or telephone number printed on your bank checks. Get a control number from the Department of Motor Vehicles as your driver's license number, instead of using your Social Security number. Don't throw away bank or credit card receipts without shredding them," she said.