How to Properly Dispose of Mail, Credit Cards, and Other Sensitive Documents

It's going to take more than a pair of scissors or a shredder to do the job.

Cutting up a credit card
Photo: Dragon Images / Getty Images

Those who have never experienced some form of identity theft are lucky. According to the Federal Trade Commission, there were 444,602 reports of identity-related fraud in 2018. Identity theft was also up by 24 percent that year. Cybercrime is certainly on the rise, but did you know that thieves can get your data in a much easier way than trying to hack some company's database? All they need is access to your old mail, credit cards, and debit cards. "Bank statements, credit card statements and other documents that contain your personal information should never be disposed of in an insecure manner," says Debbie Guild, chief security officer at PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. "By wadding up a document such as a financial statement and throwing it in the trash or disposing of it in another insecure manner, you could be at risk for identity theft."

What do identity thieves need to be successful? Your full name and address is enough; oftentimes, this information is pulled from your utility bills. According to Guild, the Federal Trade Commission estimates that it takes consumers an average of six months and 200 hours to recover from identity theft. Here's how to avoid it with proper paper disposal, according to Guild.

Practice safe paperwork organization.

You should review your documents before throwing them away. Comb through property records, receipts, pay check stubs, utility bills, and more—do these documents contain any personal information about you that can be gathered and used to steal your identity? If so, you do not want to toss it in the trash intact. Don't leave mail in the mailbox overnight or on weekends and never give out personal information via phone or internet, unless you are the one initiating the contact (and, even then, be cautious). "If you receive a call asking you to verify information, do not give it by phone," says Guild. "Ask questions and call a published number for that company to report your concerns. Never respond with personal information via text messages, unencrypted email or internet forms."

Shred receipts, statements, bills, and old mail.

If you have a paper shredder, then take the time to shred the papers before you dispose of them. "Shredding is a great way to dispose of paper bank statements, financial documents, pre-approved credit offers or other documents that contain your personal information," says Guild. "You should always secure your checkbook and other financial documents and information in a locked box at home, fireproof safe, or safety-deposit box. To be extra secure, you can separate the shredded pieces among different bags or bins of trash." These documents include paper paycheck stubs, credit card receipts and statements, bills, and old legal documents; they can be shredded once you've checked that your monthly statement matches the receipts and as soon as your payment clears.

You can also take your papers to a shredding service; this usually comes at a cost. Visit the UPS, Office Depot, and other places if you have too many papers to use your home shredder or just don't want to handle it yourself. "If you cannot access a shredder, secure the documents that you wish to shred in a locked box until you can shred them," says Guild. "You can also hire a shredding service if you do not have the means to do this yourself. Your community may also have a shredding event."

Deface and cut up old cards.

It's not enough to cut up your old debit and credit cards. "Credit cards should always be cut up into many pieces and those pieces should be disposed of in separate trash containers," says Guild. "Ensure the credit card number itself is cut and that any pertinent information such as expiration and name is unable to be read."

Another simple way to eliminate the value of your discarded documents is to cover the important information. Take a black permanent marker and color over your name, address, account information and anything that you don't want to fall into the wrong hands.

Save and store other important documents.

Some financial documents should be saved, not shredded. This includes estate-planning documents: a will, power of attorney, or health care directive should be secured either in a safety-deposit box or a fireproof safe. Stock certificates and bonds should be kept by your broker. Loan-discharge notices should be kept permanently; one day, you may need proof that you did, indeed, pay off a loan, including student loans and automobiles. This is similar to property records: Mortgage and home equity loan documents should be kept at least until they are paid off, but it's good practice to keep the record as insurance that you paid off the loans. Birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, social security cards, military discharge papers, permanent life insurance policies—keep all of these forever in a safe place.

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