I-Team Found Personal Information On Old, Donated Cell Phones

By Cristin Severance & Aparna Zalani | CBSDFW.COM

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Hannah Hightshoes was curious and nervous. Her trip down memory lane through her old phone soon turned embarrassing. The last time she held this phone, she was only 14 years old. “It is interesting how far I have come,” she said. She does not own the phone now, but her I-Phone 4 is one of 32 phones we bought from shopgoodwill.com. She doesn’t remember how it got to Goodwill.

Her old phone is filled with memes from Disney and Dr. Who. In her notes, love letters to her favorite boy band at the time One Direction. Her life as a 14-year-old, relived through this phone. “Niall. Yeah, he was my favorite,” she said of Niall Horan, popular member of the band. He is not her favorite anymore.

EXACTLY WHAT’S ON THESE PHONES?

We found more than 32,000 text messages on Hannah’s phone. “I was really sentimental so I never erased anything,” she said. The contents of her phone are like a long-lost diary. She recorded long voice memos about friends and relationships. She recorded her lovely singing.  Her selfies and goofy pictures with her friends. All of this for a stranger to see. Her phone was not locked with a pass code when we bought it. We charged it and simply turned in on to reveal all this information.

More than 150 million phones will be recycled, donated or thrown away this year, more and more people are buying the new, latest models. Apple shipped over 46 million iPhone X’s last week. People replacing old phones don’t often know what really happens to the phones when they donate or just throw it away. But, we were able to find enough information to digitally steal the owner’s identity.

CRINGE-WORTHY INFORMATION

Everything on Hannah’s phone brought smiles to our faces. But what we found on phone number #12 was nothing less than cringe worthy. It belonged to a woman in Pennsylvania. She had more than a dozen naked pictures on her phone that she sent to her boyfriend. Obviously not meant for our eyes. She had taken care to delete these pictures from her camera roll. But they were open to see on her text messages. Again, her phone was not locked.

Some other phones were harder to get into so we got Professor of Digital Forensics Jason Alvarado of Dallas County Community College District to help us out. He turned this into a class project, with Tiffany Wylie as the lead investigator. Mr. Alvarado studied these phones, mapped them using a specialize software. “(it) can maybe read things that are deleted or maybe look at their GPS location, where they have been, app usage.” he said.

CREEPY SEARCH HISTORY

Tiffany Wylie feels like she knows these people really well. Each phone tells a different tale. We are keeping the identities secret unless we got permission to name them.

Phone #6 is a singer song writer, who had a vehicle accident. He has phone messages from a local Fort Worth hospital for unpaid bills. In his emails, Wylie found invoices.

Phone # 23 is the romantic guy. The owner of this phone dated a woman from another state. The voice recordings filled with love and hope. He recorded these presumably while driving to see her.

“Things like I can’t wait to see you,” Wylie said. “I can’t wait to be married.”

His search history too was available for us to see. “We found browser history websites for best sex positions ever, seven fun sex positions, interesting sex positions,” Tiffany said.

It also had a Wikipedia search for John the Baptist and Jesus.

ENOUGH INFORMATION TO BECOME SOMEONE

One phone had more information than all others. That was Debbie Gerner’s phone. “We found enough information on her phone to become Debbie, or access accounts for Debbie or Debbie’s children,” Jason Alvarado said.

She is a mother of five kids who reuses passwords. A Mesquite resident who moved out of Texas. She spoke to us from Pennsylvania, shocked at what we found on her old phone.

“We have your apple ID, username and password, your vision insurance ID and password, security questions,” CBS11 told a stunned Debbie. Debbie said she has since changed her passwords.

SOLUTION

Debbie and Hannah both say they’ve learned an important lesson in privacy. Alvarado says the easiest thing to do is to lock your screen using a passcode.

“A pin code will protect you from most people,” he said. But there is special software to get around pin code.

Apps left on an old phone can show your current geo-location if the phone is connected to Wi-Fi. It might be a good idea to log out of those apps and then reset your phone.

“There is one phone, if we connect it to Wi-Fi, we could watch the entire Google hangout conversation or a Facebook messenger conversation,” Alvarado said.

A factory reset is a good way to overwrite information on the phone. Deleting is not the same thing. “Deleting just makes the space available, it can still be found,” Alvarado said.

But the most effective solution is a low-tech solution. Alvarado advices to take the hammer to the phone. “I think it’s the only way to guarantee that it (information) is gone.” He said the government destroys devices by shredding them.

Both Debbie and Hannah do not remember dropping their phones off to Goodwill. They don’t know how their phones ended up there.

SHOPGOODWILL’S REPONSE

Goodwill said that all their phones are wiped before being sold. But after we found half the 32 phones with some information, we reached out to them.

Shopgoodwill.com sent CBS11 the following statement:

“We have been told that approximately 15 phones purchased by a reporter from three of the sellers on shopgoodwill.com contained personal data, indicating the phones probably were not “wiped” or factory reset before being offered for sale. In response to this information, shopgoodwill has re-distributed to all 115 Goodwill’s that sell items on the website “best practices” for eliminating personal information from electronic devices before posting them for sale. We have also temporarily suspended the listing of cell phones and encouraged all sellers to confirm they have policies and procedures in place to assure that personal electronic devices offered for sale on shopgoodwill.com do not contain personal data. Our goal is to offer a safe and outstanding online shopping experience that also supports the Goodwill mission to change lives through the power of work.”

HOW TO FACTORY RESET:

Go to Settings

General

Scroll down to Reset

Erase All Content and Settings

More from Cristin Severance
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