Identity theft is on the rise.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, in 2018, over 14.4 million people saw their confidential personal information, such as banking information, credit card numbers, and medical data, stolen and misused.
Many people assume that identity theft and fraud happens primarily online or in digital contexts, but a lot of such crimes are the result of paper documentation being stolen or lost.
Identity theft and fraud impacts not only the victim but also the victim’s family, exposing them to an exponentially increased risk of suffering such theft as well. Knowing what to destroy and how to dispose of confidential documents at home is essential to keeping your identity and you and your family’s financial future safe and secure.
What are confidential documents?
Confidential documents that should be destroyed when they are no longer needed are those that contain any personally identifiable information (PII) or personally sensitive information (PSI).
PII documents are those that include information that could be used to identify you specifically and not someone else. These include anything that has your Social Security Number (though not your Social Security Card, which you should always keep locked in a safe place), as well as your contact information (address, phone numbers, emails), and your financial information.
This last category is particularly important as it can be used to gain access to your financial assets. It includes bank statements, investment documents, ATM receipts, deposit and withdrawal slips, credit card statements, pay stubs, and tax documentation.
Also destroy financial documents that come as junk mail and that could be used by someone to present themselves as you, such as courtesy checks, preapproved loans, credit card cash advance checks, and credit card applications.
Government-issued identification forms that have expired — such as passports, driver licenses, and military IDs — are also in this category.
PSI documents contain private information about your life that you may not want to become public. This includes medical records, tax records, personal letters, insurance records, and travel documents such as boarding passes.
Why should you destroy confidential documents?
Failing to destroy confidential documents can lead to serious, costly problems that can occur due to identity theft.
Avoiding identity theft resulting from lost or stolen documents means fully destroying those documents. Simply tearing them apart by hand or cutting them up with scissors is not sufficient for this purpose. Identity thieves are skilled at reassembling improperly destroyed documents and gleaning information from individual pieces of such documents.
There are other benefits to properly destroying your confidential documents: it saves space by reducing paperwork, it makes recycling easier, and it reduces fire hazards.
Keeping confidential documents
The most important documents, such as your Social Security Card, birth and marriage certificates, wills and other legal documents, list of accounts, emergency contacts, insurance inventories, passports, and so forth, are records that you will want to keep permanently.
These should be locked in a high quality fireproof safe; however, you will also want to back them up in digital form. Consider giving copies of your most important legal documents to your lawyer or confidant.
Other documents are records that you will not keep indefinitely, but which you still need to store in a secure fashion for some period of time. These include banking records, tax returns, and so forth.
These should be kept in a locked cabinet in a room that is safe from dampness, leaks, and other possible forms of damage. It is also advisable to keep these records in digital form.
Many banks, credit card companies, and other firms that produce these kinds of records issue them in digital form to begin with. If they are sent to you in paper form you can use a scanner or your phone’s camera function to digitize them.
Once digitized, be sure that all of your files are kept in secure, encrypted storage, preferably on a physical hard-drive that is also backed up to a secure cloud service.
However, if anyone is sending you paper statements and such, I would reach out to the company in question to see if they will allow you to go completely paperless. This will reduce the headaches that come with managing paper documents that contain PII and PSI.
Invest in a quality shredder
The best way to dispose of confidential documents is to use a paper shredder. Because you want the job done properly and with just one feed, it makes sense to invest in a high-quality shredder that will last a long time.
Shredders provide one of three kinds of cut: strip-cut, cross-cut, and micro-cut.
Strip-cut shredders slice the paper in a straight line parallel to the feed direction, providing a low level of security.
Cross-cut and micro-cut shredders (also sometimes called “confetti shredders”) slice the paper in two directions, producing tiny squares.
There are seven levels of shredder security, ranked P-1 through P-7; the “P” stands for “particle”, referring to the size of the “particle” into which the paper is cut: the higher the number, the smaller the particle.
The smaller the particle, the harder it is for someone to reconstruct your document, and thus the more secure the shredder. The particle sizes for each rating are:
- P-1, strip-cut = 12mm strips
- P-2, strip-cut = 6mm strips
- P-3, cross-cut = 320mm-square particles, 2mm strips
- P-4, cross-cut or micro-cut = 160mm-square particles, 6mm wide
- P-5, micro-cut = 30mm-square particles, 2mm wide
- P-6, micro-cut = 10mm-square particles, 1mm wide
- P-7, micro-cut = 5mm-square particles, 1mm wide
The trade-off for using a higher security shredder (for example a P-7 micro-cut or cross-cut) is that it can be slower than a lower security shredder and require a lower volume of paper per feed. For example, the highest security shredder, P-7, can only handle about 10 sheets per feed. On the other hand, this is the only level of shredder allowed for the most sensitive of information: classified NSA documents.
How to shred documents without a shredder
If you do not have a machine shredder, there are some alternative approaches to destroying your sensitive documents. Some are more effective than others, and some present unique challenges or even risks.
Cutting by hand
Using your hands or scissors, you can tear or cut the document. It is difficult, however, to get the particle size sufficiently small enough to be secure if you do this. This is also a highly time-consuming process. Using multi-blade scissors can help speed things along.
If you do choose to go this route, you can save time by only focusing on the areas of the document that contain sensitive information and simply recycling the other parts of the document.
This is only really an option if you have a handful of documents that must be disposed. If you’ve been hoarding a bunch of materials and are looking to dispose of them in bulk - look to other options.
Paper made from wood pulp can be dissolved back into a pulp. Place the papers in a sturdy plastic trash can or some other container. Mix in 5 gallons of water to ½ gallon of bleach, or a similar ratio of bleach to however much water is needed to fill your container.
Be sure to take appropriate precautions and use proper safety measures with bleach; do not combine it with any other chemicals. It is added to help break down the paper faster than if you used plain water.
Using a pole, broomstick, or paint stick, push the papers down until they are fully submerged. Be careful not to splash the liquid. Let the papers soak for 24 hours and then pulp the soaked paper using a pole, broomstick, or mixer set on low.
Strain the liquid from the slurry and dispose of the pulp in the garbage.
Alternatively, you can place your documents in a mesh laundry bag and run them through your washing machine a couple of times.
If you have access to an open area where you can safely and legally burn things, consider doing just that to your documents. Set up an outdoor fire pit or burn barrel in a safe location, avoiding areas with leaves, dry grass, nearby structures, and overhanging branches.
Check with your locality regarding rules and regulations regarding open burns. If it is permitted, use paper and kindling to start a fire in the container. Once the fire is going, crumple each document individually and carefully add it to the fire.
Do not add all of your documents at once. Be sure to have a cover, mesh lid, and/or water source on hand to control flying embers. After the ashes have cooled fully, scatter the ashes and rake them into the ground.
This is obviously a messy and time-consuming process.
Paper Shredding Services
In most areas, you can hire a professional paper shredding service. They will come to your location and shred your documents on site, so you can be sure that they have been fully destroyed. Alternatively, there are also drop off shredding services where you can deliver your documents to be shredded. Many UPS stores offer shredding services, where you can come and have your documents weighed and placed in a secure bin to be shredded by a secure vendor.
Check to see if your local UPS store provides shredding services here.
Using a shredding service is arguably more secure than shredding at home due to the mixing of document particles of many separate persons and entities. But it can be expensive if you are using these services on a frequent basis.
Papers that are free from glossy inks, toxic chemicals (like BPA-coated receipts), and dyes can be composted. This is best done, though, with newsprint and papers that have soy- or vegetable-oil based inks. Most of the kinds of confidential documents that you want to destroy do not meet these criteria.
Destroying documents that contain PII or PSI is important for thwarting identity theft and fraud. To do this, your best option is to invest in a quality paper shredder that provides, at a minimum, a P-3 rated cross-cut.
If you have a large amount of documents to deal with right now and are looking for alternatives to using a shredder, I would go with using a shredding service. The other methods are messy, time-consuming, and require other materials that you might not have on hand.
However, after taking these documents in to be shredded in bulk, I would urge you to buy a paper shredder so that you can make document disposal a part of your daily mail processing routine. This will save you lots of time and headache.