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Copiers tell secrets

Last reviewed: September 2010
Illustration of a bunch of copiers
Illustration by Getty Images

A threat to your privacy could lurk down the street or even down the hall. Many copy machines in offices or commercial shops keep digital files of the material they copy, print, scan, or fax on an internal hard drive. That information often remains on the machine when it's sold or trashed and could easily be retrieved by identity thieves.

A CBS News crew searched in a warehouse of used copiers this spring. It unearthed 300 pages (with data including prescriptions and a cancer diagnosis) from a copier that was once at a health-insurance company; pay stubs with names, addresses, and Social Security numbers from a construction company's copier; and more.

The Federal Trade Commission is contacting copier manufacturers and sellers to ensure awareness of the risks. "We're trying to create best practices for businesses on how they can protect data," said Burke Kappler, a lawyer in the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Some commercial copiers completely and automatically erase the last file scanned, but they cost more than others. Until safer machines are more widespread:

  • Ask the staff at a copy shop whether its machines have security safeguards.
  • Just copy. "There is actually a greater risk when copiers are used for printing, scanning, or faxing than when used solely for copying," Kappler said.
  • Use a home printer. Copiers built into those printers hold data in a buffer and only long enough to print it once.