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Junk cars hold treasure chest of personal documents

What's left behind

It's like Christmas Day for an identity thief. That's how a law enforcement officer described what the ABC3340 Fighting For You team found in local junkyards. Chances are if you are in a wreck and perhaps injured, you may never have thought to clean out your car before it was sent to a salvage yard.

Fighting For You spent the past month investigating what many people left behind in their old cars. We visited junkyards in Etowah County, Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. In each case we found these auto graveyards, hold a lot more than just scrap metal and parts..maybe your identity as well.

Social Security cards, driver licenses, medical records, insurance and banking documents: you name it; we found it. In many junkyards like Pull A Part in Birmingham, people are allowed to roam freely. We found a stack of personal documents in one car.

Over in Hoaks Bluff JJ Pounds says the cars they get are full of stuff. Even a social security card was left in one vehicle. And in another inside a console, we found someone's full income tax returns. At another stop: Bama Salvage in Tuscaloosa we found a load of other documents: insurance cards, court records, loan and bank documents.

We took what we found to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. "With those tax returns they can become you, buy houses and get credit. You could have 3, 4, 500,000 dollars worth credit by the end of the week," explained Lt. Mike Yarbrough.

And once your identity is stolen, it is so hard to get back. It can take months, if not years to straighten out the financial mess. David Green's wife totaled their car in an accident. He tells us he never thought to clean it out.

"She had her pocketbook and the kids were okay. That was the main thing you think about. You don't think about what's in the glove box," explained Green .

So whose responsibility should this be? "It shouldn't be someone else's responsibility to take care your i.d. That's your job," said Lt. Yarbrough.

We reached out to the woman whose tax returns we found. "That's just scary!" With the returns even her son's ID was at risk. She told us she thought she had cleaned out her car and was was stunned to hear the returns were right inside the console. "I just thought everything with the car was squashed and burned."

With the phone numbers and address on financial documents in another vehicle, we found another owner. "That's very creepy. I'm very surprised and shocked."

While salvage yards have no legal responsibility to safeguard your stuff, some do their best to destroy it. "When we find anything we shouldn't have, we put it in a pile and burn it. But you need to clean out your car or your leaving your fingerprint behind," says Jon Thomas who owns Bama Salvage.

Police warn we all need to quit treating our glove box like a safe deposit box. They are not safe or secure especially in an accident or if your car is stolen.

We called Alfa and State Farm insurance companies to see what their policies are. Both say they contact vehicle owners and encourage them to clean out the vehicles. If it's out of state, they can arrange for salvage companies to mail the items.

State Farm's full statement:

"State Farm works with vehicle owners to obtain permission to move their vehicle. When the vehicle is determined to be a potential total loss, customers are instructed to remove personal items from their vehicle and advised of the time frame available before their vehicle is moved. Should the customer be unable to obtain their belongings, we ask the customer if the salvage provider (working on our behalf) can retrieve those items after vehicle pickup. If the salvage provider performs this activity at the customer's direction, customers have the option to pick up their items from the yard, or have them mailed to their address. Mailing items is generally a more practical request. Ultimately, it is the vehicle owner's responsibility to manage their personal items."

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