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Is Shredding Enough? Disposing of Sensitive Documents

By Allie Seligman on July 6th, 2016

Tips abound on protecting digital information, but what about good ol’ fashioned paper documents? A stack of old bills, statements and unopened junk mail can be a treasure trove for an enterprising dumpster diver. Read on for ways to protect yourself.

A trashcan packed with mail and documents you probably think of as trash is a gold mine for an identity thief. Access to just bits of your information can lead to a full attack on your identity. From just a few pieces of pape, someone can find out your full name, your birthday, your address, your phone number, where you bank, what stores or companies you hold accounts with, where you shop, what you buy, where you work, what school your kids attend and more.

Someone grabbing your mail or digging through your garbage may feel like a thing of the past, but it’s still an easy, effective way to get at your sensitive information.

Let’s identify what kind of documents need to be properly disposed of. We’re referring to anything that contains:

  • Financial or other account numbers (bills and statements)
  • Medical or legal information
  • Your signature
  • Bank or other financial information, including deposit slips, investment reports and retirement account details
  • Expired credit and debit cards, identification cards and passports

Mail you may not bother to open is another common target. Pre-approved credit card or loan offers can do damage in the right hands. Even the pre-addressed envelopes can be used against you — they offer thieves perceived legitimacy.

Stop thieves in their tracks

  • Check (and empty) your mailbox every day, if possible. A stuffed mailbox screams “Open me!” to a thief. Clear it out at least a few times a week, even if you’re just collecting junk mail.
  • Secure your mailbox. Consider a safer option if your mail is delivered to a box out of sight and easy for others to access.
  • Go paperless. The fewer paper bills, statements and pieces of mail you receive, the less risk someone can get his or her hands on them.
  • Don’t just trash it. Break the habit of tossing unopened mail, even if you know it’s junk. The document inside could contain enough information to do harm.
  • Tearing a document into a few (or a lot) of pieces isn’t enough. Even machine-shredded paper can be pieced back together by hand or via computer. Strip-cut shredders — as the name suggests, they merely slice documents into long strips — are the least secure option. Look instead at micro-cut and cross-cut shredders.
  • Break it up. Avoiding trashing all your documents (this includes shreds) at once. Toss out a bit at a time to reduce the likelihood someone will stumble upon all he or she needs to compromise your identity.
  • Just add water. Need a quick, inexpensive way to render a document unreadable? Tear it into pieces, then put it in a plastic bag and fill with water. Squeeze and slosh the paper until you’re left with a ball of pulp.
  • Light it up. If you have access to a barbecue, fire pit or fireplace, set anything you don’t want in the wrong hands up in flame. Be careful burning paper indoors, even in a fireplace, and make sure you’re in a well-ventilated space. If you’re not comfortable burning documents at home, check for a local service that will incinerate your documents.
  • Make a mess. Deter someone who may want to rifle through your garbage by mixing up document shreds with something unsavory: kitchen waste, milk (it will curdle quickly) or litter box remains.
  • Break down boxes. While we’re talking trash, large boxes — especially from expensive electronics — are a target for criminals as well. A fancy new computer box could lead to someone discovering a credit card statement or bank deposit slip.