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Are you curbing your identity?

Are you curbing your identity by disposing documents that contain your and your family's personal information in the trash?
The Woodlands Township, Texas (www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov)

Dumpster diving or riffling through trash is a low tech scheme for stealing personal and business information for identity theft. Our first article written for this column over five years ago discussed the importance of shedding documents before disposal. A recent report and video, “Check before you trash! Don’t give thieves your info!,” suggests that keeping your personal information out of the trash is just as important today as ever.

Although we hear much about high-tech thieves hacking into our personal computers and accessing and stealing our credit card information from retailers (data breaches), much identity theft is accomplished the old fashioned way by stealing wallets, purses, and paper files from the workplace and from the trash.

So what should go in the trash and what should you shred first?

That depends. For example, if you have gone through the rigors of hiding your home address for any reason, maybe you fear someone harassing you, or you just have strong feelings about your privacy, then you would shred anything that includes your name or address including magazines and junk mail.

Businesses should shred anything with a name and address on it because you do not if your clients or employees have a situation where lost or stolen information put the client or employee at risk as well as creating liability for the business.

As a consumer, be sensible. If you and your address are listed in the public telephone directory or you can be easily found through a Web search, then shredding anything with your name and address on is an exercise in futility.

Generally, the average consumer would shred (or destroy by other means such as incineration) any document that contains your name and an account number, Social Security number, license number, date of birth, or any other personal identifier.

Common documents to shred would include pay stubs, Social Security documents, monthly financial reports (bank and credit card statements), health and other insurance account statements including medical billing records, and utility bills. This is not an exhaustive list, but it illustrates some of the common documents that an identity thief can use to wreak havoc on your life.

Many communities have implemented paper recycling as part of their trash pickup and disposal services. Some consumers have the wrong impression that disposing paper records in the residential recycling bin is safe. Recycling bins are not only easy targets by miscreants interested in stealing personal information from the trash, but they are also subject to additional risk.

Recycled trash is shipped to a recycling facility where workers sort the recyclable materials. A Wisconsin victim reported to us that the recycled trash was shipped to a New Jersey processor where his credentials were stolen and used by one of the recycling plant workers.

It’s not just dumpster divers and handlers of trash that can compromise the sensitive information on those documents you dispose but do not shred. A windstorm can be a culprit too, delivering your windblown information into the hands of a scoundrel.

The best prevention is shred, shred, shred. If you separate and collect your mail that needs to be shredded over some period of time, or if you want to dispose of a large quantity of old personal records, such as tax records that are more than seven years old, then haul your paper records to a certified shredding service, where you can either watch it be shredded or obtain a certification that your documents have been received for destruction.

Our very first article in this five-year old series discussed locating free shredding events, often called “shred fests” that are held regularly and sponsored by financial institutions and organizations in your community. Shred Fests are an inexpensive solution to destroying personal information and today they are a must-do for Spring cleaning.