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Stop Identity Thieves by Shredding the Right Paperwork

I got back from a fabulous 10 day-vacation yesterday only to be greeted by a box full of mail. We had it held by the post office while we were gone, so it all arrived at once. I could barely get the mail out as it was packed in the box tighter than a shrink-wrapped salami. Most I discarded in the trash before I even entered the house.

paper shredderBut I was careful what I threw away…and so should you be.

For example, always think twice before discarding any credit card offers or monthly bills in the trashcan by the garage. Thieves regularly practice “dumpster diving” — a tactic that involves picking through your trash at night or when you are not at home. They are hoping to find personal information to steal your identity.

For this reason, it would be a wise investment to purchase a paper shredder to destroy all documents that contain sensitive information. But what should you shred and what’s safe to toss in the garbage? What sensitive documents should be kept? And is there a certain type of shredder to use?

The answers to these questions are actually a big deal.

Shred This Paperwork

In general, you should shred all junk mail and other paperwork that includes the following information:

  • Account numbers
  • Birth dates
  • Passwords or pins
  • Signatures
  • Social Security numbers

That may not sound like much shredding until you think about specific items. Your privacy may be exposed if you haphazardly discard items like utility bills, ATM receipts or bank statements, credit card statements or voided checks, employee pay stubs and records, copies of your birth certificate, legal and insurance documents, expired passports, resumes, tax forms, transcripts, used airline tickets and signatures on contracts.

That’s quite a list! But don’t go shredder-crazy just yet. Some items do need to be kept for a specific amount of time.

How Long to Keep Paperwork

Let’s start with what to keep forever or at least until the information is outdated. This would include items such as an original birth or marriage certificate, college transcripts and diplomas, divorce decrees, passports, mortgage documents and real estate deeds, vehicle titles, education or military records, social security cards, life insurance policies, wills and trusts, powers of attorney and any warranties.

These forever items should be kept at home in a fire safe box or perhaps in a safety deposit box at a local bank.

Keep all tax records for at least seven years before shredding. The IRS can audit your return up to three years after the filing date. Plus if you have not reported income and it is more than 25% of the gross income shown on the return they can audit you for up to six years.

Items to keep for no more than a year include bank and investing statements, cancelled personal checks, credit card statements, general receipts that hold no tax or warranty implications, and pay stubs. These can be shredded once confirmation has been received the bank or financial institution has cleared the transaction. Also shred your old health, car and homeowners insurance documentation because those policies are renewed on an annual basis.

What Type of Shredder to Buy

Not all shredders are created equal. When looking for a shredder the most important factor to consider is the cut pattern. You want to look for a shredder that crosscuts (cuts in two directions) such as one that forms a diamond pattern. Some shredders only cut in strips and, although it would be a time consuming puzzle, an identity thief could piece those documents back together. A shredder that turns your documents into little bits of paper is the best option.

Some shredders are not equipped to handle plastic. That would be a consideration if you want to slice up credit cards.

The larger, more expensive shredders will be able to handle more documents at a time and will need to be emptied less often. Some even have automated feeders that slowly shred 100 sheets of paper at a time, freeing you up for other tasks while the shredder does its work.

In come cases, such as a loved one passing away who kept everything, you may be faced with massive amounts of shredding. In this case it may be a more prudent use of time to take the documents to a local shredding facility or locate a service that sends a shredding truck to your home.

Keep the Paperwork Out of the House

The main consideration should be to dispose of sensitive documentation properly and keep as little paperwork lying around the house as necessary. Electronic billing and banking, using a safety deposit box, scanning documents into your computer before shredding them and asking the post office to hold your mail while on vacation are all valuable practices to secure your information and keep paperwork from building up around the house.

In the end, all you want the dumpster divers to find are diamond shredded pieces of your life, not any information to compromise your identity.

Questions: Do you own a shredder? What do you shred? How paranoid are you of a thief stealing your identity? Have you ever had your identity stolen because a thief stole some personal information? Can you think of any other “forever items” to keep?

Original image courtesy of James West at Flickr Creative Commons

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  1. I thought that paper shredding was just an easy way to get rid of papers. I didn’t realize that it was for security purposes as well. It’s true what you say about people going dumpster diving. I would make sure that I got a really good shredder to prevent dumpster divers from stealing information.

  2. wow that was informative, thx!

  3. Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank says

    I own a shredder and I believe everyone should have on for safety purposes. I agree with your points Brian before shredding documents.

  4. I don’t own a shredder but I do make sure to rip/cut up all important documents. Hmm, maybe it’s time I invested in a shredder…

  5. We shred, I believe, all the things you mentioned shredding. We usually save things up a week at a time and have a shredding party – for some reason the kids love helping us and watching the paper get cut up into pieces. It’s the simple things I guess. 🙂 We’ve never had our identity stolen, but we have had several of our cards used fraudulently in the past so we like to stay on top of things like this.

  6. We shred anything that has our names on it. It’s sometimes a pain to go through our junk mail, since we rip the address label off pretty much everything, but we feel safer doing it that way. We have had our credit card info stolen in the past, and we caught it right away, but it was still scary. Since we started being extremely vigilant about protecting our info it hasn’t happened again, although I’m not sure if that’s because of the shredding or because of others steps we’ve taken as well. Better safe than sorry!

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