Federal employees run the risk of having their identity stolen when they sell, throw away or donate their old computers without properly deleting personal files, NASA's inspector general warned Friday. Thieves can even retrieve files that appear to be deleted, the IG said. "Unless you take the proper precautions, getting rid of your home computer might be your personal introduction to one of the fastest growing crimes in America-identity theft," the IG's alert
said. It is possible for a thief to open credit card accounts, make purchases, take out loans or order false checks and ATM cards in their victim's name, the alert said. Identity thieves need only birth dates, Social Security numbers, addresses and phone numbers to begin their impersonations. "All they have to do is piece enough information together to steal someone's identity," said Dana Mellerio, director of inspections and assessments in NASA's Office of Inspector General. "People need to be cautious about what is on a computer and what can be done with that information when it leaves their home or even government control." The alert said that the nation's capital is tops when it comes to identity theft. Annually, there are 20 incidents for every 100,000 people in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Nationally, 500,000 to 700,000 cases pop up each year, costing victims $765 million annually, the alert said. The NASA IG became interested in identity theft after a number of random examinations of hard drives slated to leave the agency. The IG was interested in finding if NASA had "appropriately cleared sensitive, Privacy Act or proprietary data from the hard drives," said Mellerio. "Identity theft seemed to be the next step in the process." Mellerio said that numerous, low-cost software products that truly delete personal information from hard drives are available commercially. Such products include ShredIt, made by Canadian software developer Mireth Technology, and FileWipe 6.0 from BlackBoard Software Inc., an Arvada, Colo. utility software developer.