boston.com Business your connection to The Boston Globe

Photocopiers with disk drives may lead to ID theft

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Consumers are bombarded with warnings about identity theft. Publicized threats range from mailbox thieves and lost laptops to the higher-tech methods of e-mail scams and corporate data invasions.

Now, specialists warn that photocopiers could be a culprit as well.

That's because most digital copiers manufactured in the past five years have disk drives -- the same kind of data storage mechanism found in computers -- to reproduce documents. As a result, the seemingly innocuous machines that are commonly used to spit out copies of tax returns for millions of Americans can retain the data being scanned.

If the data on the copier's disk aren't protected with encryption or an overwrite mechanism, and if someone with malicious motives gets access to the machine, industry specialists say sensitive information from original documents could get into the wrong hands.

Some copier makers are now adding security features, but many of the digital machines already found in public venues or business offices are likely still open targets, said Ed McLaughlin, the president of Sharp Document Solutions Company of America.

Sharp plans to issue a warning about photocopier vulnerabilities today.

Sharp, one of the leading makers of photocopiers, commissioned a consumer survey that indicated more than half of Americans did not know copiers carried this data security risk. The telephone survey of 1,005 adults also showed that 55 percent of Americans plan to make photocopies of their tax returns and related documents.

Although industry and security specialists were unable to point to any known incidents of identity thieves using copiers to steal information, they said the potential was very real.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES