Goodwill makes changes after WTHR finds charity selling personal information

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Updated: .

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

This story has been updated at the bottom to reflect policy changes enacted by Goodwill.

INDIANAPOLIS - Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana has launched an internal investigation after 13 Investigates discovered the charity has been selling tax returns, medical records, social security numbers and other sensitive information mistakenly donated by its customers.

The personal information WTHR found for sale at Goodwill Outlet Stores has angered donors, shocked law enforcement and raised policy questions about the charity, which receives 1.9 million donations annually.

The problem was first identified by a longtime Goodwill donor and shopper. Her tip to Eyewitness News triggered an undercover investigation that, according to police, exposes a safety and security threat to anyone who donates to the charity.

Not your typical Goodwill

When you think of Goodwill, you likely think of a retail store where donated furniture, books and clothes are neatly organized on shelves and hangers waiting for a new home.

The charity operates 51 of those stores around central Indiana, which also serve as drop-off locations for Hoosiers who want to donate used items they no longer need.

But much of the merchandise donated at a retail store drop-off either does not sell or cannot be sold because of its condition.  Those donations are then trucked to one of Goodwill's giant outlet stores.

Merchandise offered for sale at the outlets is not sold on hangers. There are no price tags. Nothing is sorted or sized.  It's all thrown into large rolling bins where items sell by the pound.  

In one bin, shoppers might discover pots and pans, sports equipment, clothes, art supplies, shattered plates and holiday decorations. In the next bin, there could be electronics, a tricycle, board games, a Beatles album, shoes and a used bedpan.

The enthusiastic garden-glove-wearing, bargain-hunting customers who pack into Goodwill's three Indianapolis-area outlet stores never know what discarded items they might find in the constantly-changing bins. That's exactly what makes the outlets so popular, according to Goodwill.

"There is a market for this type of shopping experience," said Goodwill's marketing vice president Cindy Graham. "There are still treasures to be had at pennies on the dollar."

But among those treasures, WTHR found many items that are not supposed to be there.

Loyal customer becomes whistleblower

Emily Watson shops at Goodwill Outlet Stores at least once a month – more frequently if she can find the time.

"It's like having 50-60 garage sales just thrown into bins, and you just dig through it," she said as she put on a pair of gloves and walked to the front door of a Goodwill Outlet Store on the northwest side of Indianapolis. "It's dirty, but it's the adventure."

Watson usually spends three to four hours per visit looking through outlet merchandise, and she told Eyewitness News she often finds sensitive documents inside the bins.

"They do that all the time. I always find those kinds of things there," she said.

To prove her point, Watson showed WTHR a box full of documents she retrieved from a Goodwill Outlet Store just a few days earlier.

The box contained bank statements, pay stubs, divorce papers, tax returns, medical and dental records, insurance documents, checking and savings account information, and many other personal documents.

"This all belongs to one family. I have their social security numbers. I have their pictures and addresses and children's information. And I pulled it all out of a bin at Goodwill," Watson said.

She took the box to a cashier at the Goodwill Outlet Center to alert the charity to what she found, and the cashier called over a manager to inspect the merchandise.

"I specified exactly what was in here," Watson said. "I specifically said there were social security numbers, birthdates … The manager looked through it and said ‘It doesn't look harmful to me. It's OK.' So I bought it. If I left it there, who was gonna get it? I wanted to take it home because I felt bad for the people who took it there."

Watson paid $27.69 for 39 pounds of someone else's personal paperwork. She then called WTHR to report her purchase.

Was Watson's discovery an isolated incident?

The next day, 13 Investigates visited all three metro-area Goodwill Outlet Stores to find out.

Caught on tape

On our first visit to the outlets, Eyewitness News found donors' personal information at each store.

WTHR reporters, producers and photojournalists then returned with undercover cameras to further document the problem.

Over the past two months, they visited Goodwill Outlets 28 times. On 24 of those visits, WTHR staff bought strangers' personal information.

Lots of it.

13 Investigates purchased valid debit cards and credit cards, medical histories, prescription records, pay stubs, immigration papers, car titles, legal documents, leases, bills, family photos, tax returns, mortgage statements, student loan applications, employees drug test results, checking account statements, job applications, college transcripts, IRA and 401K statements and living wills. The thousands of pages of personal information donated to Goodwill – then sold by Goodwill – filled three boxes and included hundreds of social security numbers.

All of the paperwork was mixed in with other donated items in Goodwill's outlet sales bins, and it was all available for public purchase – no questions asked.

Eyewitness News boxed up the items and took them downtown to Indianapolis Metro Police.  

Crazy. Scary. Shocking.

"Let me put it to you this way: this is a police nightmare here if someone got ahold of this stuff," said a surprised police detective who specializes in identity theft.

Sgt. Eric Eads has spent more than a decade working white collar crime and identity theft cases. He says the information WTHR found at Goodwill Outlet Stores can easily be used to steal donors' identities and credit.

"This is bad. Really bad. You have every single document you would need in here to go and portray yourself as these people, to create an entire identity using their information based on this paperwork," he said. "It's just shocking the amount of social security numbers and tax records you found."

Among the records for sale at Goodwill, Eyewitness News found social security numbers, birthdates, addresses and other personal information for former and current employees from the Lawrence Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff's Department.

"There's hundreds of officers on here!" said Eads, paging through the internal rosters and memos. "These documents are from a few years ago, but I'm going through these names and a lot of these people still work here. Why would any company think it's OK to sell this?"

Asked if he had a message for Goodwill, the veteran police officer didn't hesitate:

"Please stop selling this, for everyone's sake.  This is crazy. I just can't believe they would sell this stuff," he said.

Customers feel the same way.

"It's terrible. I don't what to say. I'm still stunned and in a state of shock," said Elesabeth Leclercq, after learning that WTHR found her old tax returns at a Goodwill Outlet Store.

"Oh my goodness, that's so scary," she said. "My social security number is on there, and my kids' [numbers] are, too. If you get ahold of the social security number, that's it. That's all you have to do to destroy somebody."

In a separate bin at another Goodwill Outlet Store, 13 Investigates found social security numbers for Julie and Brett Snyder and their children. The personal information was included on tax returns and medical insurance documents.

"This isn't anything we would throw away," said Julie. "I mean, we wouldn't have just handed this over to Goodwill. It's shocking. We are completely shocked."

Perhaps even more shocked is Rose.

She asked us not to use her full name or to show her identity because so much of her personal information is now vulnerable.  It was in the box Emily Watson discovered at Goodwill, which triggered our investigation.  WTHR was able to track down Rose through information contained in the documents.

"Wow. That's a lot of information," Rose said, as she retrieved her personal records from WTHR's studio. 

Rose is grateful that her information was rescued by Watson, and not purchased by someone who might have used it to steal her identity and destroy her credit. She is still deeply shaken by the experience.

"It's pretty devastating, and I've had nightmares about it," Rose said.

All personal information purchased at Goodwill by WTHR either has been or will be returned to its original owner. For those owners who cannot be reached, the information will be shredded. 

How it got there

So how did all this stuff end up at Goodwill in the first place?

13 Investigates has reached nine of the families whose personal information was purchased at Goodwill. Among their responses:

  • One family was cleaning out a parent's home with the help of a hired cleaning service. That service sent a group of boxes to Goodwill that was supposed to go to a storage unit instead.
  • A woman said her family lost personal information when an angry ex-boyfriend dumped many of their belongings at a Goodwill retail store.
  • A Goodwill donor said she accidentally grabbed the wrong bag out of her trunk to donate to Goodwill.
  • Several families say they regularly donate to Goodwill, but have no idea how their personal documents were discovered at the outlet stores.

While there appears to be many different reasons, the responses all share is one common theme:

"It was a totally a mistake," Leclercq pointed out.

"It was an honest mistake," said Julie Snyder.

"It was a mistake. Definitely a big mistake," echoed Rose. "It was never intended to be there."

All of the families contacted by Eyewitness News said the donation of their personal information to Goodwill was an error. Most took personal responsibility for playing a role in that error. At the same time, they also expressed disappointment that Goodwill was not more careful in helping to protect sensitive donor records accidentally delivered to the charity.

"They should know better than to put someone's personal information out for someone to get ahold of," Leclercq said. "How hard would it be for them to shred this?"

Eads agreed.

"No business should be selling this type of information. It's just not good business. It doesn't even make sense why you'd put it out in the first place," he said. "They need to take a serious look at their policy and make sure they're not accepting this kind of stuff. And if they do, they better not be selling it."

13 Investigates found many of the documents discovered at Goodwill belong not to careless donors, but instead to innocent victims.

For example, 62 former and current police officers and staff members from the Lawrence Police Department were put at risk because of someone else's negligence.  WTHR found a roster containing their names, dates of birth and social security numbers – all for sale at a Goodwill Outlet.

"I can only guess that someone in a privileged position took it home, left it in a drawer or a brief case, forgot about it and later gave it to Goodwill," said Keith Johnson, Lawrence's mayoral deputy chief of staff. "It is unfathomable to think that employees would take that kind of information home. It belongs here at work and nowhere else."

The city of Lawrence now has possession of the document, and Johnson said the city is filing an official police report and contacting every employee on the list.

Goodwill responds

Goodwill admits it made a mistake, too.

The charity says personal information that is accidentally donated is not supposed to be sold. According to Goodwill, staff at the retail stores and outlet stores are trained to look for personal information so it is not included among merchandise offered for sale. The charity could not explain why WTHR was able to purchase so much of that information at its outlet stores, but Goodwill is now trying to find answers.

"We do take this very seriously. Your investigation started our investigation," said Graham. "We're going to take a look and see how we can prevent that from happening… Our process would have been and should have been and will be ‘let's shred it.'"

After learning of WTHR's investigation, Goodwill hired an outside law firm to review its sorting and handling procedures.

"The resulting recommendations will lead to the development of a plan to ensure that Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana is doing everything possible to protect customers and donors by properly disposing of any personal information that is unintentionally donated to us," the charity wrote in a statement provided to Eyewitness News.

In the meantime, Goodwill has an important message for anyone who donates:

"We really want everybody to be very cautious and cognizant of what they're donating," said Graham.

In other words, before you go to Goodwill, do your own investigation to make sure you're not donating much more than you bargained for.

Protect your personal information

If you are concerned your personal information may have been compromised -- at Goodwill or anywhere else – here are steps you can take to help protect you and your family:

Personal finance expert Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, recommends you begin by filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. You can call 1-877-ID-THEFT or 1-877-438-4338 to file a formal complaint over the phone and learn more about how the FTC is fighting back against identity theft by reading the guides and materials on their website.

You can then contact the Internal Revenue Service Identity Protection Unit by calling 1-800-908-4490 so that the Social Security number attached to your tax return isn't being misused.

After you have filed a complaint, Khalfani-Cox says it's also a good idea to monitor your credit report, bank statements and credit card statements to check for suspicious activity. If you see anything suspicious, contact your bank or creditor immediately to authorize a credit freeze.

If you believe your child's social security number may have been put in jeopardy, you can contact the three major credit bureaus – TransUnion, Experian and Equifax – to request a "minor credit file check." Children should not have any credit, so if a credit file exists, that is a warning sign of possible misuse that can be corrected by the credit bureaus.

Goodwill implements new policies

Following an internal review, Goodwill has announced changes prompted by WTHR's investigation.

The organization says it has now added new procedures to find and remove donated documents.  All of those documents will now be secured and shredded -- even if they do not contain personal information.   

Goodwill is training its roughly 2,000 retail workers and managers in central Indiana about proper procedures for handling donated documents.

And the company will conduct ongoing audits to make sure the new policies are working.

"Goodwill assures our customers that we will continue to evaluate our efforts with regard to training, operations and communications as related to all donated items," explained Graham.

The changes appear to be making an immediate impact.

Over the past two weeks, 13 Investigates has done more shopping at Goodwill Outlet Stores to test the new policies. On 12 separate visits, Eyewitness News did not find a single sensitive document.

Goodwill is again asking all donors to double-check their donations before items are dropped off to make sure no personal information is accidentally mixed in.

"You're the person who has control over what happens to that information," Graham explained.

The changes announced by Goodwill affect all 54 of its retail and outlet stores in central Indiana, but the impact of WTHR's investigation is actually being felt nationwide.

After 13 Investigates' report received national media attention, Goodwill International headquarters sent a bulletin to the organization's 165 regional offices across the United States and Canada, telling them to review procedures for finding sensitive documents.

Goodwill Industries International public relations director Lauren Lawson-Zilai told WTHR the company is "confident that operational procedures learned in Indianapolis will improve processes and best practices across the United States and Canada where Goodwill operates outlet stores."