Inside the cramped lost-and-found office in New York's sprawling Penn Station, a half-dozen cardboard boxes overflow with intimate secrets.
Tucked beside forgotten winter jackets and above long-lost rings are hundreds of cell phones and personal digital assistants, or PDAs, filled with personal information – such as bank account and credit card numbers -- that could easily have slipped into the wrong hands.
Most people who misplace handheld devices lose much more than just a bit of electronics. Today's phones have become a warehouse for some of people's most sensitive financial data. And when these high-tech gadgets go missing, the information they contain becomes available to whoever finds them.
Bank accounts can be compromised and credit card numbers can be stolen, to name a couple of frightening possibilities.
"Before, when you lost something, that was the end of it. It was lost," said Michael Callahan, the chief marketing officer for Credant Technologies, a Texas company that sells data encryption software. "But by losing a PDA, a trove of information is lost -- some of (which) you don't remember you had even stored in your PDA. And that makes people a lot more susceptible to identity-theft criminals."
PDAs have become an integral part of everyday life. BlackBerry addict-elect Barack Obama was told to dispose of his gadget before he assumed the presidency to avoid a possible national-security disaster if his device was ever hacked or fell into the wrong hands. Obama won the right to keep his mobile device in January, but one configured with security enhancements.
These devices do have a bad habit of disappearing. A Credant survey conducted in September indicated that more than 35,000 phones and handheld devices were left behind just in New York City taxis during a six-month period. (Only two-thirds of owners were reunited with their phones.)
Each week, New Jersey Transit users turn in an average of 40 phones found on trains, buses or light-rail lines, or in waiting areas, agency spokeswoman Courtney Carroll said. Presumably, there are plenty of other phones that never get turned in.
"With 900,000 trips on a typical weekday, there is a lot of opportunity for people to leave something behind," Carroll said.
As smart phones' memories and browsing speeds have increased, growing numbers of users have begun using them to monitor checking accounts, transfer money and purchase new shoes -- all while waiting for the next bus to arrive.
And these popular and powerful devices -- some phones now have up to 12 gigs of storage capacity -- have become a treasure-trove for savvy hackers.