U trash reveals sensitive documents

Nathan Halverson

Terri Barreiro sat in her office at the Greater Twin Cities United Way in Minneapolis. A document shredder hummed in the background.

Her office was purging obsolete documents from its records, and shredding ensured no sensitive information would fall into the wrong hands.

Barreiro had no idea that just across the Mississippi River, her Social Security number was sitting in an open trash container, waiting for anyone to fish it out.

The document originated in 1984, when she applied to teach a two-hour seminar in Nutrition Administration at the University. It contains enough information to open a fraudulent bank account, apply for a credit card or get a cellular phone in her name, according to the FBI.

Barreiro’s application was one among tens of thousands of University documents recently discarded in one of two large trash containers in a parking lot behind an office building at 2221 University Ave. S.E.

Among the documents’ contents, which referenced thousands of people, were Social Security numbers, student grades, credit card numbers, checking account numbers, birth dates, student loan information, medical records and other private information.

Many of the documents were discarded by the Department of Healthcare Management’s independent study program office, also known as the Executive Healthcare Study Program. The program has an office in the building at 2221 University Ave. S.E.

The documents sat in the open trash container for more than one week. The trash container was emptied into a landfill Thursday, said a spokeswoman for BFI Waste Services, a waste management company.

“(That’s) pretty dangerous stuff to throw away. With that information you can commit an awful lot of fraud,” said John McCullough, director of the Retailers Protection Association. “That could cause thousands of identity thefts.”

The University has policies on the proper disposal of documents. Under those policies, information such as Social Security numbers, birth dates, student grades, genders and ethnicities are considered private data and must be disposed of appropriately, which includes a secured recycling procedure or contracted document shredders.

“I think this is an unusual occurrence,” said William Donohue, the University’s Deputy General Counsel. The University will work to ensure this does not happen again, he said.

Jessica Rich, assistant director for the Bureau of Consumer Affairs at the Federal Trade Commission, said it was not clear if the University had broken any federal laws, but the University’s policies might need to be reviewed. The FTC maintains a national database on identity theft and receives more inquiries about that crime than any other.

“Accidents do happen despite best intentions. But we take a look at the reasonableness of the policies that were in place,” Rich said. “It’s not clearly a safeguard violation. However, it’s bad.”

Rich did not indicate that the federal government would investigate the incident.

The boxes of documents were placed in the trash container after Great Lakes Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns the building, informed the office it needed to clean out its storage room because of mold contamination.

Felicia Christy, a program associate, was told the documents could not stay in the building because of fears of cross-contamination from the mold. She said she was given only one week to move the hundreds of boxes of documents to a new location.

In an e-mail from the investment trust to Christy, a spokeswoman for the company said the notice was short because the University is considering buying the property and it wanted the storage space demolished before it would purchase the building.

Christy said she did not have time or resources to adequately determine the sensitivity of all the documents. She retained only three boxes out of what she estimated were 200 to 300 boxes, because those three were clearly marked as grades.

“In the future, if we had stuff to destroy, we’d go through the regular channels,” Christy said.

However, Christy said she was not aware of the University’s policies regarding proper document disposal.

As of Saturday, more than 15 boxes, some containing information such as Social Security numbers, remained in the basement of the building. Three days earlier, The Minnesota Daily informed the University’s director of record and information management, Susan McKinney, that the large trash container contained the private documents.

Christy said the boxes were still there because she had not finished cleaning out her storage space when the mold removal crew arrived. She said it was now the investment trust’s responsibility to dispose of them.

Identity theft

FBI Special Agent Paul McCabe said identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in the United States. He said 500,000 to 700,000 identities are stolen a year.

Identity thieves acquire personal information to open fraudulent financial accounts, among other, less-prevalent scams.

“The most damaging thing you can put out there for a thief to get is your Social Security number,” McCabe said.

Private information is most commonly obtained by purse snatching and so-called Dumpster diving, where people root through trash to find things like Social Security numbers, he said

Lois Gerisman, who heads the identity theft program at the FTC, said large financial losses are not common because financial institutions like credit card companies do not hold victims accountable for debts accrued by thieves. But some people have been arrested for what another person did in their names, she said.

Usually, the greatest cost to a victim is the time it takes to contact financial institutions, businesses and credit report companies to clear their names, she said.

“It can take a lot of time, and a lot of emotional distress,” Gerisman said.

The documents

Minnesota Daily reporters obtained the discarded records June 3, following an anonymous tip. After reviewing a sample of the documents, the Daily notified University officials Wednesday. On Thursday, the trash container was picked up at its regularly scheduled time, according to the building’s management.

The documents vary widely and range in time from the 1970s to the mid-1990s.

Some are as innocuous as one memo passed between two co-workers, spreading news of a birth and an announced pregnancy. But many boxes contained much more valuable information.

For example, one box included folders with hundreds of photocopies of checks written by students for tuition payments.

Another folder, apparently originating from the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, contained applications for medical fellows who had apparently been accepted to the University’s program. The applications, ranging from 1986 to 1988, contained an applicant’s date of birth, Social Security number and citizenship.

“A checking account number that is good is worth anywhere from $50 to $300 on the street. Can you imagine how much a (Social Security number) for a doctor would be worth?” said John McCullough, director of the Retailers Protection Association.

The application folder contained more than 100 Social Security numbers of then-medical fellows. McCullough said such information for a doctor could go for $1,200.

Another box contained various accounting information for the study program’s office. It included employee contracts, like Terry Barreiro’s, that have Social Security numbers, home addresses and telephone numbers.

“A bad guy would like that stuff. That is what bad guys like,” McCullough said.

Medical records appeared in at least two folders. One was a lung study conducted in Canada in which participants filled out their names, medical histories, smoking and drinking habits, current medications, dates of birth and home addresses, among other information. They were then apparently given lung screening tests and the results were recorded in the folder.

Medical records also appeared in a three-ring binder that included medical forms apparently filled out by medical residents while accompanying doctors to assess patients.

That same folder also included printed medical reports of patients.

University response

Donohue said the University is still investigating the matter.

The University might need to increase its efforts to educate staff on how to properly handle sensitive documents, he said.

And although University officials said the policy pertaining to document disposal is a good one, it will be looked over to determine if any changes need to be made, Donohue said.

Nathan Halverson covers police and legal affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]