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Secrets Lurk Inside Your Fax Machine

Written by Brian Maass

DENVER (CBS4) - A CBS4 Investigation has found thousands of Coloradans are unknowingly making critical mistakes with their most precious personal information by discarding fax machines filled with everything from tax information, social security numbers, medical records, job offers and orders for prescription medications.

"Its private information and I don't think anyone thinks of this as being an issue," said Vice President of Metech Recycling John Miller.

He said people are throwing out what are known as "thermal transfer" fax machines, lower cost fax machines designed for home use or use by small businesses. What most users don't know is inside the machines are what amount to rolls of film that essentially make a carbon imprint of everything received and printed by the fax machine.

While most fax machines sold these days are inkjet or laser fax machines, you can still buy thermal fax machines. One expert estimates there are still millions in use. But as they break down, most people throw them out, donate them or have them recycled as it costs more to repair them than it would to buy a new machine.

Local experts questioned by CBS4 said 90 percent of the time, people are tossing their thermal fax machines with the rolls of film still inside, meaning anyone can open up the machine, unspool the film and easily pick off personal information that has been faxed.

"People don't realize that's a carbon imprint of everything they've sent through that fax machine," said Miller.

Miller said Metech takes in and recycles hundreds of thermal fax machines every month, taking care to remove the rolls of film and put them through an industrial shredder. But since many people put them in the trash or donate them to thrift stores or charities with the film rolls still inside, they are giving identity thieves easy access to their deepest secrets.

Miller demonstrated the problem for CBS4. He randomly selected two thermal fax machines manufactured by Panasonic that had recently been turned over to Metech.

When he opened up one and looked through the rolls of film, we found a Broomfield families' name and address, medical lab tests that had been sent or received, the mother's faxed order for Playtex bras, her prescription order for Vicodin along with the families' social security numbers, names and addresses.

"What else do you need to go on a shopping spree and create a false I.D.?" asked Miller.

On a second Panasonic fax machine, the rolls revealed the owner's insurance identification card with their name and policy number, a college transcript complete with name and grades and several letters an employee had faxed to their boss complaining about their work conditions.

"Information is there forever until its destroyed," said Miller, who recommends either removing the film ribbons and having them shredded or cutting them up with scissors, or taking them to a professional recycler for destruction.

About a mile away from Metech's 100,000 square foot warehouse is R2 Stewardship, another electronics recycling company.

Manager Henry Renteria-Vigil said he sees the same problem: consumers discarding thermal fax machines oblivious to the fact their personal information is still inside the machine.
"People don't realize anything they received there will be an image on that film," said Renteria-Vigil.

Renteria -Vigil cracked open two thermal fax machines manufactured by Brother, that he said had come in within the last week from a recycling event in Boulder.

One of them yielded the 2006 tax returns for a woman in Gypsum including her signature, social security number and earnings. As the roll unspooled it also yielded medical records, restaurant menus, and a recipe for making fruit slushies.

The rolls on the second machine contained equally sensitive information, including an imprint of a man's social security card, a woman's W-2 tax forms with her social security numbers and other critical data along with a signed employment letter detailing the man's base salary and bonus information and hospital records and immunization records for his children.

CBS4 tracked down the owner of that fax machine, Joseph Linnemeyer of Castle Rock. He said he had recently moved and donated the fax machine to a thrift store, not realizing what he had left inside.

"I didn't even think that was in that machine," said Linneyemer, as he perused the old film rolls that still contained his family's private tax and medical records.

"I am very secure oriented and I can't believe I did this. I would be in trouble because all my social security numbers are on there. We could have been ruined," said Linneyemer.

Paul Eichhorn, owner of Fax Service Systems in Aurora, said of the thermal fax machines, "A lot of people still have them" because they are "dirt cheap."

He compared the way they store information to an old typewriter ribbon where the keys strike the ribbon making a permanent imprint.

"The laser or inkjet fax machines don't do that- they're very secure," said Eichhorn.

If you are wondering if your fax machine is a thermal transfer fax machine storing information, open it up and take a look inside. If you see two rolls of black film, that resemble the plastic type material used to make trash bags, you own a thermal fax machine and need to be careful about what you do with those rolls.

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