Even before I started my paperless office experiment, I purchased a shredder. The amount of private information on the paper I was throwing out started to concern me when I realized that I had no idea where most of it was going.
The novelty of turning every random scrap of paper kept my normal waste basket empty for the first week. After this fascination wore off I started asking myself “Do I really need to shred this?”
Surprisingly, most of the time I found it was better to shred pretty much anything that came in the mail. Flyers and other mail that gets sent to everyone is spared from shredding, but most of the junk mail goes into the shredder. Here is some of my reasoning for some particular items:
- Fund raising letter from alma mater. I initially put it in the trash, but then dug it out and reduced it to confetti. I have seen some institutions ask you for the name of your college as part of a verification process, so if someone were digging through the trash to locate personal information, there is a chance it could be used to gain access to other private information.
- Envelopes of financial statements. Obviously I filed or shredded the actual statements, but the envelopes, themselves, could give an identity thief a good idea about where to start looking.
- Extended warranty information for my car. Since it identified my vehicle, I figured it could be used pieced together with other information to cause mischief.
Obviously this is being a little on the paranoid side of things, but if you get a decent shredder, the cost of shredding as opposed to trashing a piece of paper is minimal. In fact, it might be less because finely shredded material takes up less space than a can full of trash so you don’t have to empty it as often.
One of the biggest mistakes people make in getting a shredder is buying a machine that is too small for their needs. For me, personally, if I can’t take a credit card offer and reduce the entire thing into bits of paper without even opening the envelope, the shredder isn’t powerful enough. That means shredding all the paper and any fake plastic credit card they sent with the offer. If you have to manually run paper through it one or two sheets at a time, you’ve really messed up your workflow and made it much slower than what you had with a trash can.
I think my chances for identity theft from someone digging through my trash are probably very low, based on where I live. But it is possible that, as identity thieves become more sophisticated, the probability may go up. The less information about me that has gone out through the trash and sits who-knows-where, the better.