SPECIAL REPORT: Copy machines: Identity theft risk?

By Evrod Cassimy – bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – Almost everyone has used a copy machine, they're most likely at your job, or at your doctor, or dentists office. They're in almost every business and used several times a day.

Copy machines can do just about everything these days. Now more than ever though, many people are concerned that a quick photo copy can lead to someone stealing your identity.

"It's become a big deal and a big worry, rightfully so to a certain degree," said Nicole Christopher with copy machine wholesaler, Cobb Technologies.

The secret is in the copy machine's hard drive. Just a like a computer, these machines can now store information. Chances are, the very image you copy could be saved to the machine's memory.

"It has evolved over the last few years," said Christopher. "Every year the manufactures make a new machine with new features just like cars. They're multi-functional devices. You can scan, fax, print, store information, and connect to the network security."

And the hard drive your documents are stored on isn't too hard to get to by hackers or someone looking to commit identity theft.

"You can remove a couple panels and see the hard drive," said IT expert, Tracy Short, with Cobb Technologies. "We remove two panels and there it is. Four more screws and you can have the hard drive out."

What's saved on those hard drives varies. Depending on the number of pages being copied. The image is stored on either the machines RAM or Random Access Memory or the hard drive itself.

Typically any job with less than about 30 pages gets stored on the RAM and erased the next time the machine is used. Jobs with 30 pages or more typically end up stored on the hard drive until a technician can manually erase the entire hard drive. It's up to the user to be careful when photocopying important and private documents.

"The bottom line is it's kind of their responsibility because it's kind of their information," said Short. "From a dealer or a vendor standpoint it's our responsibility to educate the customer and assist them in getting that information taken care of."

Cobb Technologies is one of the many copy machine companies in our area. They sell brand new machines but lease machines as well and work to educate customers about how to protect those using their machines from identity theft.

"The real only way of getting rid of the information permanently on a hard drive is either sanitizing it or overriding or destroying the hard drive," said Short.

The most common and easiest way however, is formatting the machine, something the company's IT professionals do with every machine.

"It's very simple," said Short. But these important steps can protect you. "And formatting the hard drive only takes just a few minutes."

While you sometimes don't have control over who photocopies your personal information, IT experts suggest asking questions about what will happen to a document that you've filled out with personal information.

Business owners are also cautioned to make sure they have a company like Cobb Technologies format or sanitize their hard drives to keep the document you've copied from being duplicated by a hacker.

The professionals we spoke with have not heard of hackers stealing copy machine hard drives as of yet in our area but we have seen reports where it's happened. You should know that most hard drives are encrypted, making it next to impossible for the average person to access what's on it.

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