All she wanted was a file cabinet.
The 73-year-old Fife woman found one, a used three-drawer model with locks and keys, at a Federal Way thrift store.
When she got it home April 29, she hoped to use it as a safety deposit box inside a closet. What she found inside made her so nervous she asked that her name not be used.
“There were all these papers from a Seattle Bank of America,” she said. “About an inch-high stack of them, with customer names and social security numbers, bank account balances and CD information …”
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The financial documents were dated, most of them from 2009-10.
The woman, who is moving this month to Puyallup, asked her real estate agent what she should do with them. The agent called an attorney friend.
“They told me, because the papers were so old, to just throw them out,” the woman said. “That didn’t seem right to me. The records might be old, but the social security numbers would still be the same.”
She thought about calling police but worried they might think she’d stolen the records. The bank, the Madison Park branch of Bank of America, was too far for her to drive.
“I didn’t know what to do with them,” she said. “So I called The News Tribune.”
We met at the Poodle Dog in Fife. Over coffee, she slid the papers across the table on the promise that they would not fall into the wrong hands.
The fact that they had fallen into her hands is an example of what one state official calls the “oops factor.”
“That shouldn’t have happened, those papers and that information needed to be guarded,” said Rick Riccobono, the state director of banks for the Department of Financial Institutions.
“Identity theft is so huge, there are regulations on these things. We’re so conscious of cybersecurity, but our vulnerability usually comes from the ‘oops factor’ with human beings.”
Just how did those records wind up in a Federal Way thrift shop? What follows is The News Tribune’s attempt to find out.
At the Madison Park bank branch, an assistant manager who identified himself only as Joseph tried to explain.
“Two weeks ago, we got rid of our older cabinets,” Joseph explained. “There’s a process we go through. Everyone goes through their filing cabinet to make sure nothing is in them, then a second bank associate goes through them again before they’re loaded on a truck.”
Somehow, those searches missed the pages that wound up in Federal Way.
“The process is, an outside vendor is sent to pick them up, takes them from us, and from there I don’t know what happens to them,” Joseph said. “This should never have happened. There are pretty specific regulations about shredding documents.”
Joseph then provided a San Francisco telephone number for bank customer assistance. When asked his last name, Joseph said he couldn’t give it.
Pressed further, Joseph said “Have a good day” and hung up.
Because Bank of America is a national bank, it is under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in Washington, D.C, so public affairs director Bryan Hubbard was asked the next question.
What should someone do with lost documents like these?
“Contact the bank first, make them aware of what you have,” Hubbard said. “If you can’t do that, then you could contact us.”
Hubbard then emailed links to regulations that govern a bank’s responsibility to safeguard consumer privacy.
A representative of the Bank of America then telephoned The News Tribune to inquire about the documents and what questions we might have about them. She said she would get answers, then asked what specific papers were involved.
There was a power of attorney form, numerous certificate of deposit forms with the customer’s name, balance and account numbers. There were bank summary sheets which listed, among other things, the cash total on hand at the branch.
There was a handwritten page of notes with the names of customers and, beside them, numbers ranging from $42,000 to $250,000. There were small business loan forms, filled out by clients.
There was a banking center manager sheet with performance assessment scores and details on credit booked, fee refunds and other items.
And there were dozens of names, addresses, date-of-birth records, account numbers and social security numbers of Bank of America clients.
We randomly called 10 people listed in the records. Six of those telephones were disconnected. Two went to voice mailboxes.
The other two?
One Seattle resident answered and said she was “dumbfounded” her bank records had turned up in a thrift store.
“The good news is, I no longer have an account there,” she said. “The bad news, this information is supposed to be protected!”
A call to another customer was answered by her mother, who said her daughter was out of the country.
“I’m in shock,” the mother said of the documents, then laughed. “How much money did (she) have in her account?”
On Friday afternoon, The News Tribune returned all the documents to the bank.
Bank of America spokeswoman Britney Sheehan said an initial look at the records indicated they contain information for 60 to 70 people.
“The privacy of our customers’ personal and financial information is our top priority,” said Sheehan, who is based in Seattle. She said bank customers are protected against fraud and that the company is “vigorously investigating what occurred here.”
“We’ll be reaching out to customers whose information was in the cabinet as quickly as possible and will do everything we can to further protect their information,” she added.
As for that 73-year-old woman from Fife who unknowingly took the records home in her thrift-store file cabinet?
Her anonymity remains, for which she is grateful.
“I wanted to do the right thing but was worried about the bureaucracy,” she said. “I’m happy to have those papers off my hands.”