Criminal networks are feeding off Australians' lust for new technology by skimming data from computers dumped in Africa and Asia - and using it for blackmail, fraud and identity theft.
They will pay as much as $200 (NZ$253) on the black market for discarded computer hard drives, which they mine for bank details, credit card numbers and account passwords.
These hard drives are among the mountains of electronic waste earmarked for recycling here. Instead, they are illegally shipped to developing countries by operators seeking bigger profits.
At the same time, more than 230 million items of e-waste - from televisions to computers - are buried in local landfill each year, creating a toxic pollution problem. Others are being resold with confidential data intact, creating opportunities for fraud in Australia.
The old computers of an Australian television network were found with the personal phone numbers of politicians, storylines and staff records, as soon as two months after the files were created.
Elsewhere, dumped computers contained tax file numbers, asset lists and income details for customers of a big accounting firm. In another case, the records of a major medical services company included the highly confidential medical histories of patients and evaluations of doctors' performance.
Geordie Gill, who runs a Sydney e-waste recycling service, said he had been approached by operators offering to take e-waste for free, arousing his suspicions it would have been heading overseas.
Sending e-waste overseas is cheaper, but its export is banned and the Department of Sustainability and Environment is now investigating the discovery of Australian e-waste dumped in Ghana.
Jim Puckett, an investigator from the Washington-based Basel Action Network, said computers were sent to cybercrime hotspots Nigeria and Ghana, where hard drives fetched $US200.
''At first hard drives were being sold for about $25 ($NZ32) but the price has risen for hard drives with data intact,'' he told Fairfax. ''People do not seem to be aware that they are exposing themselves to these personal crimes.''
Mr Puckett said they had found dumped data from organisations such as the World Bank and child-protection agencies.
Legitimate recycling companies in Sydney say the federal government must do more to prevent the illegal shipments of second-hand hardware.
''In Africa, the way they do it is plug in a power supply to the hard drive and rip out the information,'' said Mr Gill. ''It is too easy - a few plugs and they have it. It is scary. You can't stop the kids in Africa going over the pile of computers. It has to stop here.''
Professor Craig Valli, a cyber security expert from Edith Cowan University, heads its Security Research Centre in collaboration with four universities around the world. They have spent the past five years analysing second-hand hard drives.
Professor Valli said each year they find more classified information leaving people very exposed to identity theft and blackmail.
Australian Federal Police Superintendent Benjamin McQuillan, of the National Organised Crime Taskforce, warns that, before discarding devices, Australians need to destroy hard drives or use memory-wiping programs to delete data.
- Sydney Morning Herald