I had a bit of a surprise last night. As I left a shopping mall about 9 PM, I heard a noise coming from a trash dumpster in the back of the parking lot. I stopped, looked, and saw a very well-dressed young man standing in the dumpster. I watched as he methodically opened each bag of trash and every box in the dumpster and examined the contents. He also had a flashlight to help him read the individual pieces of paper.
I have written about security issues many times, including computer security and other factors involved in identity theft. I used to be in the computer security business some years ago, charged with protecting hundreds of thousands of credit card numbers stored on my employer's web servers. I used to train our customers' employees on security issues, including "dumpster diving." However, last night was the first time I ever saw “dumpster diving” with my own eyes.
If you have read any articles about credit card theft or identity theft, you already know that such theft of information rarely happens online. Credit card theft usually occurs in one of two scenarios:
- A waiter or retail clerk or gas station attendant takes your credit card and walks away with it. When out of your sight, he or she copies the information on your card or perhaps swipes it twice. He or she then returns with the legitimate charge slip for your signature, then puts the other slip in his or her pocket for later use.
- Dumpster diving: A person goes through your trash, looking for old bills or any other documents that might have credit card numbers or social security numbers printed on them or any other identifying information.
Identity theft can also occur from #2. Actually, most identity theft happens when the thief already is acquainted with or related to the victim. However, some identity theft happens after a thief goes "dumpster diving" and finds identifying information.
It is possible that the young man I saw last night was only looking for returnable bottles and cans or other items of some value. However, this was no street bum. He was well dressed, neatly groomed, and he had iPod "earbuds" in his ears, obviously listening to tunes while he worked. I've never seen such a well-dressed street bum, much less one carrying a flashlight and an iPod. I doubt if he was looking for bottles. I believe he was looking for credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, or other identifying information.
I called the police. However, I doubt if they could arrest him. After all, what laws were broken? He could always claim that he was looking for returnable bottles or perhaps a watch or ring that he lost earlier in the day. While there may be laws on the books against what he was doing, I suspect it would be difficult to obtain a conviction in court.
How well protected is your personal information? Are your credit card numbers and your Social Security number protected at home and in stores? Can someone find information about you in the trash?