Anyone with a mailbox knows how frustrating it is to receive junk mail, credit card offers, receipts, and all sorts of paperwork. But when you’re looking down at a fresh mountain of these documents, it can be hard to figure out whether it is safe to just toss them in the trash or recycle bin.
Because of the issue of identity theft, it is not safe to throw away receipts, junk mail, and other documents containing sensitive personal information. Identity thieves can rifle through your trash or recycle bin, steal your information, and use it to launch fraudulent and criminal attacks on you.
A piece of seemingly harmless document can put you at risk of identity theft. This article will dive deeper into what documents to destroy and which ones to keep, how to properly dispose of sensitive documents, and other tips you can use to protect yourself.
How to Dispose of Sensitive Documents
The most effective way to get rid of documents that contain personally identifying information is to shred or destroy them. Shredding is done with the use of a paper shredder. The shredder makes it so that the paper cannot be reconstructed in any way.
A cross-cut shredder provides more security than a single cut shredder as it cuts paper into tiny pieces, rather than into long strips. If you have a large number of documents, you can use the help of shredding services instead. Some banks also shred financial documents for free on request.
In the absence of a paper shredder, you can cut up your documents by hand with a heavy-duty pair of scissors. This method is mostly used with a very small pile of documents because it is labor-intensive and not as secure as shredding. If you’re using this method, ensure you’re not just ripping your documents in half, but properly cutting them up into pieces.
You can also burn up your documents. Burning isn’t always completely practical, but it is an effective way to destroy sensitive documents. If your city laws allow it, you can use an open fire. You can also burn your documents in a wood stove or fire pit. For a large number of documents, you’ll need an incinerator large enough to burn them effectively.
Another incredibly effective method of destroying sensitive documents is pulping, which involves submerging your documents in bleach water to make them completely unreadable. A wood chipper can also work when destroying documents. After chipping, the paper can serve as a mulch for your garden, just add it to your compost or yard waste.
What Documents to Shred and What to Keep?
A pile of documents and paperwork can be a pain but may also be a gold mine for hackers and identity thieves, so it is important to properly get rid of them. Note that each type of document is different, and some do not need to be shredded.
The section will tell you about the documents you should shred, those you need to keep for future use, and papers you can dispose of without shredding.
What Documents to Destroy
To protect yourself as much as possible, destroy anything that contains personally-identifying information such as your full name, address, signature, home or work telephone numbers, financial information, and bills, date of birth, Social Security number, travel information, and business-related documents. These documents can include:
- Junk mail, coupons, credit card offers, and catalogs
- Bank statements, credit reports, and pre-approved credit card applications
- POS receipts, ATM receipts, credit card receipts, and utility bills
- Birthday cards, leases, contracts, memos, and letters
- Packing receipts and address labels
- Travel itinerary, boarding pass, airline tickets, and luggage tags
- Expired visas and passports
- Expired driver’s license, employee badge, and college IDs
- Mails, medical reports, and school report cards of your child
- Resumes, pay stubs, and employment records
- Tax forms and tax-related documents more than seven years old
- Legal and insurance documents
I recommend getting a good cross-cut shredder, like this one found on Amazon.
The only documents that you can safely throw away are those that contain no personal information whatsoever. These documents can include grocery or coffee shop receipts. You can simply toss them in the trash or recycle bin.
What Documents to Keep
There are some documents you may need to keep forever, and others that should only be stored for a certain period. These documents must be kept in a safe place from potentially prying eyes. I like to use a flat storage bin that I hide under the bed. But even better is to use a fireproof locking storage box, like this one found on Amazon.
Some documents to keep forever are:
- Birth and death certificates
- Adoption papers, wills, trusts, and powers of attorney
- Social Security Cards, ID cards, and passports
- Annual insurance policy statements
- Marriage and business license
- Retirement plan statements and pension plan documents
- House deeds and mortgage documents
- Academic records including diplomas and transcripts
The other category of documents to keep relates to those you should hold on to for a certain period. You don’t need to store these documents forever, but you may need to reference them from time to time. Such documents may include:
- Tax records: Keep for seven years.
- Pay Stubs and paychecks: Keep for a year.
- Bank statements: Shred after a year. But hold on to those related to taxes.
- Bills: Keep tax or warranty related bills for a year, shred others immediately after payment.
- Credit card statements: Keep for at least 45 days. Hold on to those related to taxes.
- Medical records: Keep for at least a year. Hang on to those containing prescription information, health insurance information, and specific medical histories.
- Investment records: Keep for seven years after you’ve sold the security or sold the account
- Vehicle records: Shred after you’ve sold the boat, car, or motorcycle.
- Home Purchase, sale, and improvement documents: Shred six years after you sell
Can You Recycle Shredded Paper?
Typically, this depends on your city and the recycling center. Most recycling facilities don’t accept shredded paper. This is because shredded paper is hard to recycle as its fibers are too short to be processed by machinery.
If a recycling facility does accept shredded paper, it will almost certainly need to be properly bagged or sealed. Also, cities that accept shredded paper have different recycling requirements, so you may need to ask directly from your handler.
If you can’t recycle your shredded paper, there are other ways to get rid of it. You can use it as compost for your garden or as bedding material for your pets.
More Tips on Protecting Your Identity
- Check and clear out your mailbox at least thrice a week.
- Check the content of junk mail before shredding it.
- Opt out of receiving unwanted junk mail.
- Go paperless—request bills and statements to be sent online instead.
- If necessary, scan your document and shred the physical copy.
- Store your sensitive documents in a filing cabinet that has a lock on it.
The issue of identity theft is a very serious one. One of the ways to protect yourself is to properly dispose of documents that contain sensitive personal information. Documents like mails, receipts, bank statements, and expired IDs should be shredded. If you don’t have a shredder, you can burn, pulp, or chip them.
Other papers like birth and death certificates, retirement plans, marriage licenses, and Social Security Cards should be stored forever. Keep these documents in a safe place, such as a filing cabinet with a lock. To reduce your amount of paper clutter, remove your name from mailing lists and ask that bills and statements be sent to you online rather than through the mail.