Personal Documents in Storage Auctions

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Why They’re There, What to Do with Them, and When to Walk Away 

During live storage auctions, it is not uncommon to open a unit and see filing cabinets or file boxes full of folders and papers. Immediately, auction buyers begin to ask, “can we leave the files?” Technically, if not legally, the answer to that question should be yes, the files can be left behind.  Most self storage lien laws do not specifically address the topic of items containing personal information. However, almost every state has other regulations on the sale of items revealing someone’s identity. This includes tax documents, medical records, legal records, pay stubs, identification paperwork, etc.

What Does the Law Say? 

Is it illegal for the storage operator to sell the items? Yes, and no. It is likely illegal for them to sell such items KNOWINGLY, but most self storage laws do not require operators to inspect the entire contents of the unit for auction. Operators are required to provide a general description of the property in the legal advertisement, so they do need to have a general idea of what is in the unit. Many of the laws go on to say operators or managers are not required to open boxes, trunks, cases, valises, or other items that might contain additional property. This part of the law is good news for auction buyers because this is what stops managers from needing to touch everything in the unit. It also leaves a lot of property unknown. Likewise, as an auction buyer, you don’t stand at the storage unit and go through each box as you are cleaning out the unit. You probably don’t even look through all the stacks of paper you see when you finally do organize your winnings. You likely toss the entire stack in the closest garbage bin.

Personal Items and Online Storage Auctions 

Online storage auctions could make it easier or harder to identify personal items stored in the unit. You have more time to look at the photos and investigate the contents of the unit. However, often, photos are blurry or dark and you cannot make out any of the items in the unit. Additionally, you don’t have a facility manager standing beside you to permit you to leave the files or records behind. You have no way of knowing how the facility manager will react to personal items once you have won the unit.

What should you do if you discover documents revealing a person’s identity?

  1. Attempt to return the documents to the storage facility. That could potentially be a big hassle for you. The facility might be far away or closed. It is also possible the facility might refuse to take the items back. It is not unheard of that happening.
  2. If the facility won’t take possession of the documents, or it isn’t logistically feasible for you to return them,  my best advice to you is to destroy the documents so there is no possibility of someone recovering them and committing identity theft. If you have a staff who helps you clean and organize units you bought at auction, make sure they understand the sensitivity of these items and dispose of them properly.

Are there times when you should not bid on storage auctions because of files or personal documents? Absolutely! If you see a unit full of banker type boxes, like these, Personal files in a storage auction unit and they say something such as “legal records” or “medical records,” you should not buy this unit. The facility should not be selling these items, and in turn, you should not be reselling these items either, assuming someone would buy them. Essentially, there is nothing you can do with these items; thus, there seems to be little reason to invest in them.

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