Clean documents out of your car to avoid 'crash crooks'

Clean doc's out of your car to avoid 'crash crooks'
Published: Nov. 9, 2015 at 4:04 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 11, 2015 at 3:33 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - That old checkbook you left in your glove compartment? Get it out.

The four-year-old collections notice with the account number you've since paid off and closed, the one you left in your center console? Remove it immediately.

Because a Whitehaven woman's recent car accident was a real wake-up call for us -- the realization that the crash may not only total your car, but also your credit.

Hair stylist Robin Rivera totaled her car in an accident while on a business trip to Chicago. She wasn't hurt, and her insurance company got right on it -- totaling out the car, cutting her a check, helping her remove what she thought were all of her belongings, including the custom car stereo. Her insurance company sold the wreck to an auction, which sold it to a Chicago-area junkyard.

Rivera found out later that her insurance company and she forgot to remove a few things from her glove compartment: long-forgotten documents with personal information that could let a thief unlock her finances and identity.

"I left a medical bill with my Social Security number and an old checkbook with checks that I didn't even realize was in there," Rivera said. "Anybody could have ran off with my ID and just done whatever they wanted to."

Quite honestly, we could have done whatever we wanted to with what we found in Memphis-area auto junkyards. Roaming the yards and rummaging through the wrecks, we found checkbooks with blank checks, bills with account numbers -- even some people's license plates.

"You've got to remember to remove your car tags, too, after a wreck or after you've sold your car," said Larry Walker, owner of Midtown Auto Parts & Salvage, 1670 Chelsea Avenue. "You need to make sure that you have your car tags because they can be used (to accrue) parking tickets. They can be used in criminal activity, whatever."

It's on you and your insurance company to have these items removed from your totaled vehicle. There are no federal or state laws that put that responsibility on an auto auction or junkyard. "What about other people who couldn't get back to their vehicles like I was able to? I mean, that's like a breeding ground (for crooks). That's unnerving."

The Mississippi Attorney General's Office and the Arkansas Insurance Department confirmed neither state mandates any responsibility on behalf of a wrecker service, auto auction or junkyard to have personal items removed or destroyed from wrecked vehicles. Tennessee law, however, does require towing services to hold a wrecked vehicle for 30 days before selling it -- or until the owner, the owner's legal representative or insurance company releases the vehicle for re-sale.

"We can dispose of that car after that 30-day period," said Scott Westbrook, owner of Westbrook Automotive, Inc., 3966 Winchester Road. "So once the car is disposed, they don't have the option of getting anything out of that vehicle at that time."

"Most insurance carriers work directly with the insured vehicle owner and instruct them as to where their vehicle is located and how to retrieve any personal items left in the vehicle," said Insurance Auto Auctions in a written statement. "Insured persons involved in an accident should contact their motor vehicle insurer to understand and obtain direction as to the preservation and return of personal property and documents."

Robin Rivera's living right. It turns out the Chicago junkyard owner who bought what remained of her car found her documents. He conscientiously secured them, called her and arranged to have them returned to her.

"I'm thankful that there are still honest people out there that are doing that, but it exposed something that I never would have thought of," she said.

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