Junkyard Journeys: At Risk of Identity Theft
BROWNSVILLE – Hundreds of cars at junkyards in the Rio Grande Valley were found with plenty of personal information left inside. Experts said a mistake like this could set someone up for identity theft.
A CHANNEL 5 NEWS crew looked through dozens of cars at five different junkyards throughout Cameron County. Only in one occasion did a junkyard owner stop us from gaining access to these vehicles.
Many vehicles are taken to these places to be dismantled and then crushed into compact metal. But inside the twisted scraps of metal we found treasure.
We freely went from car to car and were shocked to find valuable personal information such as a check book with a person’s name, their account number and even their cellphone number. We also found vehicle registration papers, a life insurance policy, bank account statements, health insurance cards and even pictures.
We took our findings to Angie Salazar, assistant special agent in charge for U.S. Homeland Security Investigations. She said the Rio Grande Valley ICE sector investigates cases of identity theft each year.
“It’s a major process. It’s a huge undertaking to try and correct when someone has stolen your identity whether they’ve used it just for something simple like installing utilities in your home or whether they’ve gone to the other side of the spectrum with it and buy a home with your Social Security number,” she said.
Salazar said there are criminal organizations operating in such places that are dedicated to stealing people’s identity and fabricating fake documents to further their illegal activities.
“Whether it’s to create an identity for employment or for more nefarious reasons, whether they want to create a bank account to start funneling illegal proceeds for cartel organizations or in extreme situations, even terrorist organizations who need a name and information who will not become suspicious to law enforcement,” she said.
The most interesting and detrimental item we found in these junkyards was a tax return. So, we decided to track down the owner of the document.
The journey took us nearly 200 miles out of the Valley to Ingleside, a small town near Corpus Christi.
We arrived at the address listed on the tax return. A young man opened the door and told us the person we were looking for, his brother, didn’t live there anymore.
The young man and his mother had lost contact with him. They tried to get in touch with him through other relatives, unsuccessfully.
We returned to the Valley with the tax return still in hand. Back at home, we had other important documents to deliver to their owners.
We also found a statement that contained a woman’s name, address and account number for a popular big-box store.
Sylvia Gonzalez told CHANNEL 5 NEWS she’s glad it didn’t fall into the wrong hands.
“Yes, it worries me. There’s so much identity theft these days that you don’t know when or who it can happen to,” she said.
Gonzalez said she doesn’t know why or how it ended up there.
We also delivered Teresa Velez her vehicle registration information.
“Thank you for everything, for the information. It’s good that this time it wasn’t anything more,” she said.
We tried to deliver an unopened Christmas card to the rightful owner in Los Fresnos, but they no longer lived at the address.
Salazar said no law requires people to return important documents found anywhere to their owners.
“If you sell a vehicle and you left your taxes in there or your W-2, it’s no one’s responsibility to then turn around and find you and locate you and give them back,” she said.
If anyone ends up with important information that doesn’t belong to them, Salazar advised they can attempt to return it or properly dispose of it.
“Whether shredding it or making it sure it’s completely destroyed and illegible before you throw it in the trash,” she said.
We went back to one of the junkyards and spoke to the owner, Gonzalo Hernandez, about our findings. He said most of the 50 to 60 vehicles that come in each week are purchased at auctions.
Hernandez said they go through an inventory list for each car. He admitted there’s no practice to dispose of documents with personal information.
“We’ve never thought about it that way, but it may be a good precautionary measure. We might have to implement something where we throw everything in the trash,” he said.
When it comes to identity theft, Salazar said people need to be proactive about protecting their own information. She said it can end up in the unlikeliest places.
Since we couldn’t return these documents, we shredded them to dispose of them properly.
Salazar said if an identity is stolen all of the burden of proof falls on the victim.