It’s an identity theft criminal’s dream – and everyone’s worst nightmare.
Behind the Better Homes Depot, at 106-10 Rockaway Boulevard in Ozone Park, sit dozens of big, black trash bags.
Most are filled with boxes of files – in these files are personal, confidential pieces of information, including Social Security numbers, W-2 forms, 401K documents, employment history, full credit histories, even addresses and cell phone numbers.
One man whose file The Courier recovered was simply in shock when he was told of the situation.
“Wow,” he said over and over again. “I wouldn’t have known.”
The man did business with Better Homes Depot, which was ordered to pay out more than $600,000 in consumer restitution and fines by the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) for allegedly misleading many first-time homebuyers and engaging in deceptive trade practices. As part of the settlement, the company had to pay over $525,000 in consumer restitution to 36 customers in amounts ranging from $5,000 to $40,000, and pay $100,000 in fines to the city.
Spurred by a pattern of complaints and an undercover investigation, DCA filed suit against Better Homes Depot in July 1999 charging that the company violated the New York City Consumer Protection Law and other related laws by misleading homebuyers throughout the purchasing process.
Typically, according to the DCA, Better Homes Depot purchased properties in foreclosure, commonly one- and two-family homes, and advertised “No Closing Costs” to generate interest. Once a contract was negotiated, Better Homes arranged financing through Madison Home Equities, a New York State mortgage bank authorized to deal with government insured loans through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development/Federal Housing Administration (HUD/FHA).
When they closed up shop, said Joanne Uhl, a neighbor, they cleaned out the storefront – and deposited the trash bags in the ungated, unlocked, open alleyway, completely accessible 24-hours-a-day.
“It’s been out here six months,” said Uhl. “I thought nothing of it at first.”
But when she noticed the contents of a bag that a rat had chewed through, she was in shock.
“I came across a bag that was partially opened,” she explained. “[Inside] there were 50 or 60 records of people buying houses, with all their information – Social Security numbers, names, current addresses. There’s so much possibility for identity theft.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, Uhl, who went to John Jay College, called 3-1-1, Community Board 10 (CB10), the 106th Precinct . . . all the way up to the FBI.
“They said they couldn’t do anything, it’s private property,” she told The Courier. Frustrated, she continued, “They say ‘If you see something, say something.’”
CB 10 District Manager Karyn Petersen said her “mouth dropped” when Uhl informed her of the situation.
“It’s irresponsible of the agency to just dump the information,” she said. “I’m sure these clients have no knowledge.”
She explained that, because it is private property, many city agencies cannot do anything.
Even the precinct can only get involved after a crime has been committed, she said.
“Especially in the summer, with people outdoors, it’s accessible . . . you could have many victims,” said Petersen.
Community Affairs Officer Kenneth Zorn is appalled at the situation. “They emptied that whole place and just walked away.”
He explained that protecting one’s identity is “more than just shredding your mail at home.”
“People are so concerned about locking away their Social Security cards, but everywhere you go they ask for your information – can you really trust those people,” he cautioned. “You really have to be careful everywhere.”
According to the New York General Business Law Section 399H, records should be shredded before disposal or personal identifying information should either be destroyed or modified to make it unreadable.
Phone numbers for the location’s owner, identified by the Department of Finance as Eric Fessler as of 2007, were out of service.
The Department of Sanitation, when contacted by The Courier, sent a team to the location on Tuesday, July 20.
In the meantime, one man was very happy to get his information back.
When told his files would be returned by The Courier, he said, “I really appreciate it. You made my day. I wish people were honest like you.”