Shredding: A Key Weapon in Your Document Security and Identity Theft Prevention Strategies

Shredding is essential to prevent identity theft after you sort out files and documents overflowing in your closets and cabinets — here’s help for deciding what to keep and what to destroy: Internet ScamBusters #300

Welcome to Scambusters issue #300! We’re doing a Special Issue today based on a personal story to celebrate 300 issues — to help over 12 million people protect themselves from Internet scams.

Even though we live in the age of digital data, we still manage to accumulate boxes and boxes of paper documents. They pile up over the years and sorting them is a daunting task.

And we can’t just throw the ones we don’t want in the garbage where criminals could find and use them. They must be destroyed by shredding.

In a Special Issue this week, Audri takes us through her own experience of dealing with this huge challenge for her mother’s documents.

Time to get going…

Shredding: A Key Weapon in Your Document Security
and Identity Theft Prevention Strategies

Shredding old and unwanted documents has become a vital part of protecting yourself from data and identity theft.

Gone are the days — if we ever truly had them — when you could just hurl letters and old records in the trash, confident no one would ever look at them again.

Today, anything that gives personal information about you and your finances can become the basic raw material for crime.

Hunting through garbage is part of the job for scammers and identity thieves. Total destruction is your main defense… and shredding is your key weapon.

But what do you do when you have decades worth of documents, so many in fact that they seem ready to take over the house? Where and how do you start?

That’s the challenge Scambusters’ Audri Lanford faced when she recently visited her mother in New York, to help her wade through a lifetime of documents and other records, deciding what to keep and what needed shredding.

It took four days, and was an interesting experience in which Audri did the research, devised a simple system, gained valuable insights and identified tips to use if and when you face this daunting task.

So we decided to create this Special Issue of Scambusters with a shredding article built around Audri’s experience.

First though, a quick caveat: We are not experts in document retention, and are not providing any financial, investing, accounting or legal advice. We are simply focused on helping you protect yourself from identity theft via shredding, and telling you our story of what Audri did — with the hope that it can help you with the process.

Audri’s mother had two closets and a four-drawer cabinet, each full to overflowing with old documents. Sorting them out raised five questions:

  1. What do you keep?
  2. What do you do with the stuff you don’t want?
  3. What’s the best method for going through it all?
  4. How do you organize what’s left — the stuff you want to keep?
  5. How do you do the shredding itself?

1. What to keep

I Googled terms like “document retention” and “document destruction” linked with the term “New York” and to find the state requirements and guidelines to help us determine what to keep and what to toss. I also looked for federal requirements.

I recommend you do the same thing for your state. It’s best if the document is from a reputable source, like a state agency. Then, print it out and keep a copy so you have a reference for what you’re keeping and what you’re throwing out.

Using this process, I devised four groups of documents:

(1) Those we needed to keep forever — like tax returns, important personal memories and photographs you want to keep, important medical information, and broker statements covering longstanding investments and real estate. You need to make your own decisions for this category.

(2) Those needed for IRS purposes. Their normal audit period is the previous three years, but they can, in some cases, go back six years (and even longer if there is fraud). Since fraud was not an issue, my mother decided to go with six years, but then decided she felt more comfortable with an additional year — for a total of 7 years’ worth of documentation.

(3) Current year items — documents relating to this year should be kept separately so they are quick and easy to access… plus you’ll need them for this year’s tax return.

(4) The remainder to be disposed of — the shredding fodder!

A footnote on the tax documents: When I checked, New York state requirements were the same as those of the IRS, which made it straightforward for us. However, individual states may vary so check out yours before deciding what period to cover in your storage.

Of course, if you’re in business, again the requirements will be different. My project was just for an individual — my mother.

2. The stuff you don’t want

Well, yes, as I said, you must destroy it. But, with a personal shredder that can handle only a few sheets at a time, my mother would have had to spend the rest of her life shredding. We had boxes and boxes and boxes!

So we tracked down a company that comes to your residence (they also do businesses) and will let you watch while they do the shredding.

Now, you may think that sort of service would only be available because we were in New York City but, as it turns out, here in Boone, North Carolina, where we live (and which is obviously far from New York in terms of size), there’s a company that comes once a month and will do the same thing.

In smaller towns, there are also companies where you can take your documents for shredding rather than them coming to you.

There are many companies that do shredding in New York, and many are probably good. The company we used — Data Shredding Service, Inc. — charged $210 for an hour and they could shred up to 80 boxes’ worth in that time. We felt this was a great investment considering the alternative! (We are not affiliated with this company in any way, other than as a happy customer.)

Data Shredding Service, Inc.
One Corporate Drive
Hauppauge, NY 11788
Phone: 631-231-1319 Ext 103

3. Sorting it out

This was the most time-consuming step and physically the most challenging. We started with the oldest stuff first, and this went fairly fast. Basically, anything that didn’t fit into one of the first three categories went into a box for shredding.

When one box was filled, we started another.

Unfortunately, we actually needed to open and at least quickly check the contents of pretty much every file so we could be sure about what we were getting rid of.

For the very old years, we placed the documents we needed to keep, like tax returns, in a separate pile for each year.

The current year went more slowly, of course, because these were live documents and we were keeping a lot more of them. For the old documents, we were able to go through a box in about 10 or 15 minutes.

The past seven years took more time than the really old years, but less than the current year. Again, we sorted into piles by year.

We eventually got through an enormous mound of stuff and ended up with 20 big boxes that could go for shredding.

4. Organizing what’s left

As I mentioned, we had the remaining documents, the ones we wanted to keep, in a separate pile for each year.

I put everything my mother needed to keep forever into two boxes, sorted by year, and placed them in the bottom of her closet because she really didn’t need to do anything more with them.

Then I took the seven-year stuff and we sorted that, again by year, and placed the documents in two more boxes. Then there was a box of miscellaneous stuff — so five boxes of old documents in total.

And, of course, all the current items went into the filing cabinet for easy access.

All the rest was for shredding. So we wound up with half of her two closets and half of her filing cabinet being empty, which was absolutely thrilling!

5. The shredding

The company, Data Shredding Service Inc., arrived on schedule and came in with two big containers — like sturdy garbage cans on wheels.

They came up to my mother’s apartment and took all twenty boxes and just emptied them in these containers while we watched.

Then we were invited to see the actual shredding, which was done in their truck. They even have video cameras showing what’s happening so you can be absolutely sure your documents are destroyed.

The guys were great. They invited me to climb up into the truck and look at the pile of stuff we had shredded when we finished. The whole thing, from the time they rang the door bell to when we were done and they gave me the receipt and certificate of dissolution, took 20 minutes — for 20 big boxes. It was wonderful.

So, that’s how Audri and her mother dealt with this key issue of document retention and destruction — and gained a whole lot more space in the process!

Their approach shows that if you know what you want to keep, have a method for sorting and organizing, and have a professional to look after the shredding, it’s a cinch!

That’s a wrap for this issue. Wishing you a great week!