In early May, Angela Bazan brought her phone into a Madison, Wis.-area U.S. Cellular store after the earpiece stopped working. After an unsuccessful attempt to fix her phone, a green LG Banter, the clerk offered to replace her phone with a new model. The broken device, Bazan was told, would be wiped of her personal information and recycled.
Bazan thought no more of the broken phone until early July, when she received a phone call from a man who was trying to contact an eBay retailer who had sold him a green LG Banter.
The earpiece speaker on the phone was broken, he said, asking if Bazan was the seller. He also asked if Bazan had a young daughter, which she does. All of Bazan’s texts, pictures and contact information were still on the phone.
After learning that her phone had not been recycled or wiped of her personal information, instead finding its way onto eBay, Bazan began a long and ultimately futile process to find out how her phone – and personal information – fell into the wrong hands.
“It freaked me out,” Bazan says. “I would never in a million years have thought twice about leaving a broken phone there to be recycled.”
Bazan, a 13-year U.S. Cellular customer, spoke with the manager of the store where she dropped off her phone and called the carrier, which had no explanation of why her phone hadn’t been erased or ended up on eBay instead of a recycling plant.
Fearing for her privacy and the safety of her 5-year-old daughter, Bazan asked if U.S. Cellular would be willing to buy the phone back from the man who had purchased it on eBay to ensure her data was not compromised further. She was told she could purchase the phone herself and get a credit on her account for the amount she paid to get it back.
Dissatisfied with U.S. Cellular’s response, Bazan filed complaints with Wisconsin’s consumer protection agency and the McFarland, Wis., Police Department. Five weeks later, after numerous phone calls and no explanation from U.S. Cellular, the carrier sent Bazan’s phone back to her, wiped clean of her information.
Although Bazan is relieved to know that the information on her phone is no longer compromised, she remains deeply uneasy about the fact that the information on the phone was available to total strangers for more than two months.
“It’s scary to think that someone has my information,” she says, citing websites like whitepages.com that allow addresses to be located by entering a phone number. She’s had a fraud alert placed on her credit report in case the information on the phone, which included her phone number, leads to identity thieves attempting to get more information about her that could help them obtain credit cards under her name.
A U.S. Cellular spokeswoman said the company was still working with Bazan to get the incident resolved. Bazan said that when she pressed for more information on the incident, U.S. Cellular told her they were conducting an internal investigation and were under no obligation to share information.
Edward Perez, the company’s vice president of marketing and sales operations, said in a statement to Wireless Week that phones placed in the carrier’s recycle bin are no longer considered part of U.S. Cellular’s inventory and are not tracked or reviewed for content. A third-party vendor handles the wiping of the phones, and customers are encouraged to delete their information before submitting a phone for recycling. U.S. Cellular declined to identify the third-party vendor.
Cell Phones Go Green, the eBay store where Bazan’s phone reportedly ended up, did not reply to requests for comment. The eBay’s rating system shows the store has had 28 negative complaints in the past six months, including two customers who allege the phones they purchased turned out to be stolen. The store has had 31 neutral ratings and 590 positive ratings during the same period.
Customers like Bazan have little recourse in this situation. Susan Schilz, a senior regulatory specialist for Wisconsin’s Office of Privacy Protection, says none of the personal information leaked in Bazan’s case violates the state’s data breach law. Essentially, carriers are under no legal obligation to wipe customer’s phones free of data.
Schilz, who was the first to handle Bazan’s case, said customers should delete the information on their phone before handing it over to be recycled. Schilz also advises customers to have their phones wiped of data while they’re in the store. “There are a lot of good reasons to recycle them but you want to make sure you don’t leave private information,” she says. “You really just have to protect yourself.”
Before this incident, Bazan said it never would have occurred to her to wipe her phone before having it recycled. Now, she says she will smash a phone before ever handing it in.
Bazan also remains dissatisfied with U.S. Cellular’s response, which she feels has been more focused on hushing the incident up than finding answers. She said U.S. Cellular offered her $250 for the inconvenience, but that she’d have to sign a release absolving U.S. Cellular of any liability in the incident. She declined the money and the release.
The weeks-long ordeal has left Bazan with no answers as to how her phone and personal information ended up with a random stranger, and Bazan doesn’t think she’ll renew her contract with U.S. Cellar after more than a decade with the company. “It didn’t have to be like this,” she said. “They could have communicated with me more to let me know what’s going on.”