Document shredding: what should you shred, and when should you shred it?

You hear advice all the time that you should shred sensitive documents to reduce your risk of identity theft. However, what exactly are “sensitive documents,” and are there some you should keep for a while before destroying them?

What documents should I shred?

In general, you should shred documents that contain any of the following:

  • Account numbers
  • Passwords
  • PINs
  • Signatures
  • Social Security number
  • Date of birth

Basically, this is all the information that could be used by an identity thief to impersonate you. I also like to shred anything that has my name, address, email address, phone number and other less-sensitive information. Yes, I know most of this information is available in the phone book. It’s just a privacy thing. Still, not everybody needs to know I subscribe to Mother Earth News and Writer’s Digest.

Oh wait, I guess now everybody does know. So, how long should you keep documents before shredding them?

Junk Mail

I basically shred all junk mail that isn’t addressed to “Occupant” or “Resident,” especially credit offers. It’s just too easy for someone to fill out that form, mail it in with an address “correction,” and end up with a credit card in your name. Shred immediately.

Credit Card Receipts

I’ve heard you should keep them for 45 days, but to be honest I pretty much shred them after I’ve checked for errors and paid the bill. Plus, I think it’s time to sign up for online billing if you can. They can’t steal your mail or find a bill in the trash if there’s no paper bill in the first place.

Tax Documents

Keep them for at least seven years, then shred away. This is assuming you’re doing everything correctly and filing a return every year.

Mortgage Documents

Keep these, as well as documents of any improvements, for six years after you sell the property in question.

Pay Stubs

One year, or at least until you’ve made sure they agree with your W-2.

Medical Records

One year is the standard, in case of billing errors or disputes. I’d probably go ahead and make it a little longer.

Credit Union/Bank Statements

Keep them for one year. Really, I think you should just get the electronic statements where available. Nothing for them to steal, nothing for you to shred.

Insurance Documents

Life of the policy plus five years. This was actually news to me. I’m sure I’ve shredded some things that I sure don’t hope I need now.

Should I shred receipts?

I generally shred for any kind of electronic transaction (ATM withdrawal, credit card purchase), even though they blank most of your card number out. Actually, since I use cash for most purchases these days, I don’t bother with retail receipts. I shred ATM receipts, though. It just feels like I should, whether that’s logical or not.

Should I shred utility bills?

Yes. After you’ve paid your bill, you can pretty much shred these unless they contain tax-deductible expenses. In that case, you’ll need to keep them with your “tax stuff.”

What type of shredder should I purchase?

There’s a quandary here. Cross-cut shredders turn your documents into confetti that nobody could ever hope to put back together. Strip-cut shredders are a little less secure, but at the same time, how many dumpster divers are willing to go through the trouble of assembling a document out of a bale of paper spaghetti? Here’s the rub: from what I’ve read, cross-cut shred isn’t as recyclable. It has to do with the length of the paper fibers that can be retrieved from the shred. Cross-cut shred can only be recycled into very low-grade paper. In lieu of having your own shredder, if there is a (trusted) business in your community that will take documents for shredding, you can always contact them about dropping off your documents.

What can I do with shredded paper?

If the recycling center won’t take it, you might have to get creative. I’ve heard it makes good bedding for domestic rodent-type pets. I’ve even heard of people using it as bedding for horses. Other than purchasing a horse, you can also use it in compost bins or to start fires (if you have a fireplace, that is). After that, you’ll have to get creative. There are articles all over the Internet on this topic. If you must simply throw it away, reduce the amount by only shredding the parts of each document that contain personal information.

Identity Theft Myths: Identity theft is a high-tech crime

What springs to mind when you hear the words “identity theft?”

Be honest, now.

For a lot of people, the first thing they think of is their home computer. Because of the constant emphasis on computer security (and a few made-for-TV movies, I don’t doubt), many people are under the impression that your identity gets stolen because you were on the Internet and a hacker broke into your computer and got your personal information.

Of course, hackers exist. What used to be the demesne of nerdy college kids and spoiled brats with powerful computers and too much unsupervised time has become an important tool for organized crime.

However, not all identity theft occurs online. You don’t have all your credit card numbers, account numbers, passwords, Social Security number and other information stored on your computer anyway, do you?

Do you?

Tell me you don’t.

Anyway, a huge chunk of identity theft occurs through very un-high-tech channels. Your purse or wallet get stolen, and you were carrying your Social Security card with you. That’s an open door.

Or you received a load of credit card offers in the mail and simply tore the envelopes in two (or not at all) and threw them in the trash. That night, somebody picked through your garbage and found it. It’s the dark side of Dumpster Diving—what used to be a fun way to drive around college towns in June and score free microwave ovens is now a common route for identity theft.

If picking through garbage isn’t gross enough for you, there’s this little factoid: between 10 and 25% of identity theft victims knew the person who stole their identity. That’s your friends and coworkers. It could even be your family members.

The wide range in this percentage seems to depend on who is doing the research. You see both numbers in different reports, but there may be an age-related factor: younger people tend to know the person who stole their identity more often (as many as 40% of people under 30, according to some data I’ve seen). The point is, a lot of identity theft happens because somebody left their purse unattended at work.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can ignore online safety. Keep your virus/spyware protection updated and don’t fall for those phishing attempts (which I know you won’t because you’ve been reading the FPU, right?). But look at the low-tech ways you might be making yourself vulnerable. Get a crosscut shredder today if you don’t already have one, and get that Social Security card out of your wallet, already.