Did you know that it is totally legal for anyone to dig through your trash, looking for credit card statements and offers, bank balance statements, and other mail that contains valuable personal information? It’s a well-known way for police to obtain evidence, and it’s also a popular method for use by identity thieves.
When you throw something in the trash and leave it on the curb for a disposal service to pick up, throw it in a dumpster, or otherwise dispose of it, your trash and all of the identifying information it contains about you is up for grabs.
That’s why it’s important for you to protect your privacy and your valuable personal and business information by shredding any documents you are going to dispose of.
What Documents Should You Shred?
You should shred anything that has sensitive information about you, such as your signature, medical info, legal info, banking info, tax info, your social security number and more.
Basically, if it contains something a stranger wouldn’t know about you, then it is a candidate for shredding.
Are you wondering what personal documents should be shredded? How about this handy list?:
- Address labels from junk mail and magazines
- Bank statements and related receipts (including ATM slips)
- Birth certificate copies
- Canceled and/or voided checks
- Credit and debit card bills and receipts
- Credit reports
- Documents with names, addresses, phone numbers or e-mail addresses
- Documents that include passwords or PIN numbers
- Driver’s licenses or any items that include a driver’s license number
- Pay stubs
- Policy information
- Employment records & accompanying documents
- Expired passports and/or visas
- Financial documents
- Financial accounts
- Legal documents
- Investment documents, stock and property transactions
- Insurance policies – Old and not current
- Documents with a signature (leases, contracts, letters)
- Luggage tags
- Medical and dental records
- Non-laminated identification cards (college IDs, military IDs, other IDs)
- Anything with a Social Security number
- Pre-approved credit card and loan letters and applications
- Personal records
- Receipts of any kind
- Report cards
- Tax forms
- Travel itineraries
- Used airline tickets
- Utility bills
As a rule of thumb, if you’re not sure, it’s best to shred it so you don’t open up potential problems in the future.
What Is the Best Way to Shred My Documents?
There are three main ways you can shred your documents beyond all recognition. There used to be four options, but burning just isn’t cool anymore – the environment, don’t ya know?
1. Purchase and Use a Document Shredder
This is my favorite method, as there is just something so satisfying about shredding all of that paper.
This is a great way to shred certain documents, especially if you plan on shredding them as you go. I keep my document shredder near my desk, and as I’m going through the day’s mail I feed my unwanted mail and documents to Audrey III. (Yes, that was a Little Shop of Horrors reference.)
Personal shredders vary in price and features, and I’ve seen shredders start as low as $20 on sale. Of course, the more features each shredder provides, the higher the price.
I recommend paying a few extra dollars for a shredder that can handle a large number of pages at once, does crosscut shredding (that basically creates a pile of confetti that is nearly impossible to reconstruct), that can shred credit cards and laminated ID cards, and that can shred stapled documents.
Trust me, the extra features are worth the additional cash outlay. You’ll thank me later.
2. Use a Document Shredding Service
Using a document shredding service is my recommended way of doing things for those that have a small to large business amount of documents, or for those that are finally cleaning out their storage closet that contains years upon years worth of documents.
Check with your local office superstore, like Staples, Office Depot or OfficeMax. All of these office stores will perform document shredding services for a price (usually around $1 or so a pound) and even offer free shredding of small amounts of documents.
If you don’t have an office store nearby, check with your local FedEx or UPS location. Both shipping companies offer shredding at many of their locations, for a nominal fee.
There are also many locally-owned and independent firms that will shred your documents. Just be sure to ask around about their reputation and service before turning over all of your potentially sensitive documents.
There is one last option: You may be able to find a “shredding event” in your town. While I was researching this I found that occasionally, companies will work with local governments to offer free shredding services to local citizens. AARP even holds shredding events around the U.S. from time to time.
3. Pulp Your Documents
This third option – the pulping method – is a bit more time consuming than the first two options. However, depending on how you feel about paper mache, it also may be more entertaining.
To pulp your documents, you require a large, non-leaky trash can, in which you place a mixture of bleach and water and, of course, your documents. You mash your documents down into the bleach and water mixture, which breaks down the paper and bleaches away all of the text.
While it takes a day or two for the mixture to completely break down the documents, and it can involve the use of power tools, it’s an efficient way of rendering your documents completely unreadable. Besides, at the time of this article we’re all under COVID-19 quarantine, so what else do you have to do with your time?
The video below demonstrates the entire process, step-by-step. Plus, it offers great tips on how you can use the pulped result to heat your home for free. (BONUS!)
Is Document Shredding Really Effective?
Document shredding is one of the best ways to help protect yourself from identity theft. It is also one of the easiest ways to protect yourself, requiring no technical or computer knowledge.
Simply tearing your documents into pieces by hand and throwing them away leaves you open to bad guys grabbing your trash bags and having a puzzle party to reassemble your documents. By shredding or pulping your documents, you guarantee that they’ll never be read again and you won’t become an identity theft victim.
Document Shredding FAQ
⭐How Long Shall I Keep Documents in My Home Filing System?
It depends on the document. Junk mail, receipts and credit card statements can be disposed of fairly quickly. If you pay for things using a debit or credit card, keep the receipts until you can make sure they jibe with your credit card or checking statements, then you can throw both away.
Many experts say to keep bank statements, pay stubs, phone and utility bills, and automobile bills for a year or so. Tax-related receipts like business expenses and charitable contributions belong in this category too.
Long-term storage is for tax-related documents like W-2s, expenses, etc. The IRS generally has three years to audit you, although they can go back farther if they believe you’ve seriously understated your income.
Keep things like marriage and birth certificates, passports, Social Security cards, wills, death certificates and titles in a safe place, like a fireproof safe. You might also keep a household inventory in the safe, or even a video of all your home’s inventory.
⭐Is It Safe to Keep a Digital Copy of My Documents?
I make digital copies of all of my important documents. I store them on local media as well as in encrypted cloud storage. If you do digitize your documents, I strongly recommend you follow the 3-2-1 rule of safe backups: make three copies, stored on two different media, with one copy located at a different physical location.
⭐Is It Safe to Shred at Staples?
Staples does not shred documents in their stores. Instead, all documents that are turned over to them for shredding are stored in secure storage bins, which are then picked up later. This is the same system large corporations use for their shredding needs. Staples uses Iron Mountain for their shredding services. Iron Mountain has an excellent reputation for security.
⭐Are There Any Free Shredding Services?
There are free shredding services, but you may have to wait for a shredding event in your local area. Occasionally, companies will work with local governments to offer free shredding services. Shred-It offers shredding events. You can check their website for more information. AARP even holds shredding events around the U.S. from time to time.