ID thief: The office copy machine

The hard drive holds images of copied documents, and they could end up in the wrong hands.

Posted by Karen Datko Tuesday, November 30, 2010 7:11:21 PM

When potential exposure to identity theft comes to mind, how often do you think about the office copy machine?

Don't feel bad. A survey by Sharp Document Solutions some time back found that 54% of consumers didn't know that many copy machines have a hard drive that stores photocopied documents. Think payroll information, Social Security numbers, medical records -- important stuff that in the wrong hands can lead to ID theft.


"Nearly every digital copier built since 2002 contains a hard drive -- like the one on your personal computer -- storing an image of every document copied, scanned, or e-mailed by the machine," a CBS News report said earier this year.


As part of its investigation, CBS acquired four used copy machines from a warehouse where they'd been stored for sale, and found they contained images of all sorts of confidential documents, including medical records kept by Affinity Health Plan. The health insurance company was required by law to notify 400,000 customers of a potential security breach.


Because most big copiers are leased, that means plenty of hard drives are put back in circulation, possibly with lots of private information intact. Post continues after video.

Steps have been taken in government circles since this came to light:

  • After the CBS report came out, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate.
  • In New Jersey, a bill recently approved by the state Assembly would require that the hard drive be erased or made undecipherable before a copy machine changes hands. 

Here's what you need to know:

  • Does your office copy machine have a hard drive? "According to (Rex) Davis of the Identity Theft Resource Center, hard drives tend to be found only in high-end digital copiers that cost thousands of dollars and can handle large copy jobs quickly," The New York Times' Bucks blog said.
  • If the copier has a hard drive, does your company make sure the information on it is removed or made inaccessible before the copier leaves the building? (Simply reformatting the drive won't work.) Can it keep the hard drive without disabling the machine? Major makers of copy machines offer security or encryption packages for machines built between 2002 and 2007, and they're available in newer machines. Ask specifically about the one in your office.
  • Should your company be taking other steps? "We've told enterprises that they should change the password from the default on copiers and (multifunction printers)," Avivah Litan, an analyst at Gartner Inc., told Computerworld. "They should disable all services that they don't need and make sure that the data modem is separate from the fax modem."
  • Don't use copy machines at supermarkets or the library to reproduce sensitive information unless they're old or small. If you use a copy store like Kinko's, ask first what security measures are in place.
  • Stop relying on the office machine to copy your personal documents (as well as your silly cartoons and jokes -- co-workers will thank you). Buy a small printer/copier for the home.

But what about all the other copiers that are making duplicates of your identification -- when, say, you hand over your ID card at the doctor's office?


Ask them the relevant questions, too. And the people at the DMV, etc. Spreading the word could help.


CBS said that "evidence keeps piling up in warehouses that many businesses are unwilling to pay for such protection, and that the average American is completely unaware of the dangers posed by digital copiers."


More from MSN Money:

Tags: banksfinancial privacyidentity theftKaren Datko

Readers' Choice

Ratings table
RatingTop 5 Articles
View all Top-Rated articles