How One Man Averted an Identity Theft Epidemic - NBC Bay Area

How One Man Averted an Identity Theft Epidemic

A San Francisco landlord, saddled with sensitive documents, did the right thing



    How One Man Averted an Identity Theft Epidemic
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    Thousands of documents that could have landed in the hands of fraudsters went to the shredder instead.

    In a small, empty office in San Francisco's Cow Hollow, landlord Billy Tookoian surveyed a fraudster's dream: 46 cardboard boxes of personal information.

    The boxes were the detitrus of what was until last year a thriving business, Financial Title. Then the economy tanked, and the company folded up its locations all across California, including the one Tookoian rented to it.

    "They basically abruptly closed shop," he said as he walked past the company's logo still affixed to a white wall. "Turned the lights off, closed the door and walked away."

    The company walked away, but it left behind a few souvenirs of its time there.

    The office desks and chairs were left at the ready for the morning workforce. Also left behind: the 46 boxes, containing personal information for about 2,000 clients.

    A bankruptcy firm that handled the closure worked out a deal that allowed Tookoian to take control of his building without a lengthy court battle. But in exchange, he was left responsibility for all the personal files.

    "We had 2,000 to 3,000 files," Tookoian said. "As a landlord and a condo owner, didn't feel comfortable just throwing them out in the recycling bin."

    So while he figured out what to do with the files, they languished in a corner of his building.

    Tookoian fingered through the boxes, bearing Social Security numbers, copies of checks, bank information, credit reports, even thumbprints.

    "I guess the best way to describe what's in those files is an identity theft fraud starter kit," said Tookoian.

    According to consumer advocates, 10 million people in the U.S. will fall victim to identity theft each year. Joe Ridout of Consumer Action says situations like Tookoian's have become more common as the economy takes a toll on businesses : "One of the hidden consequences of this economic mess we've been in over a year now is that a lot of businesses are failing and as they fail they leave behind a lot of information that could contain something very important about you and me."

    Ridout says the Federal Trade Commission has implemented new laws requiring businesses to properly dispose of sensitive personal information. So far, an Illinois mortgage company was fined $50,000 for throwing personal records in a dumpster. But fines like that are rare.

    "I think most of us underestimate how much of our personal information is just lying about in numerous businesses across the country," Ridout said.

    In Tookoian's case, there is a happy ending for Financial Title's customers, who probably had little idea that a lifetime's supply of personal information was sitting in a cardboard box, guarded by a single deadbolt. Last week, a company that specializes in destroying sensitive documents hauled off all 46 boxes from Tookoian's business.

    And left him with the bill.