A few days ago, I spent some time cleaning out a closet in our house that was mostly full of unnecessary stuff. I wound up recycling the vast majority of the contents of the closet and ended up giving away many of the other things I found in there.
One of the items I was left with after cleaning out this closet was a box full of older financial papers. There were statements, insurance policies, old contracts, and other things. These had been stuck in the closet at various times, usually in well-marked boxes or envelopes.
Over the following few days, I went through this box and sorted things out based on what I felt we needed to keep in hard copy form (insurance policies, for example), what needed to be scanned onto our computer and then disposed of (bank statements, for oen), and what could just be tossed immediately (junk mail).
As I went along, I separated the documents to be disposed of into two groups: ones with key personal identification on them and ones without such identification.
The documents without identifying information were easy to dispose of. They went the same route as any other paper recycling.
The trickier problem was with the large pile of material with identifying information on it. I don’t want to put papers with our full credit card information, our Social Security numbers, or other such key identifying data out there where anyone could grab them.
Tossing papers with such identifying material on them is a route to identity theft. If someone digs through your trash and finds your Social Security number or your credit card number, they’ve got what they need to trash your identity, taking out loans in your name and causing you endless problems.
The chances of someone digging through your trash for such info is relatively slim, of course, but it’s one of those things that can really mess with your life if it happens.
So, what do you do with these papers?
The frontline solution is to shred those documents. Doing this will pretty much ensure no one steals your identity. If you shred, their chance of stealing is dead.
The problem with shredding is that home shredders are generally very low throughput. Feeding paper through a typical home shredder – a page or two at a time – takes a very long time. It’s also noisy, so it’s not really something that’s convenient to do while you’re watching a television program, for example.
The best route is to simply keep up with your shredding so you only have a few documents to shred at once, of course. However, that doesn’t solve the common problem of dealing with a big pile of papers.
Another option is to look for a “shred-a-thon.” Many cities hold these somewhat regularly under various names (such as “document destruction day”). They just rent a giant industrial paper shredder and have people in the community bring in their documents to get shredded in bulk. This service is usually free. Many universities offer this service, too.
If you don’t have such a service available to you, look for a business that specializes in document disposal. They’ll shred large quantities of documents for a few dollars, often while you watch. Many large businesses have such services within their own organization, so you could just mix your paper in with those.
If these options don’t work, burn them. Use all of your documents as the starting fuel for a large bonfire. However, it’s not a great idea to just take all of your documents and just burn them. Instead, make a giant burnable cube out of them.
One better way to do that is to rip the documents into smaller pieces and fill up a tub about halfway with the documents. Then, add water to the documents until the bin is mostly full. Let it sit for twelve hours or so, then drain off as much water as you can (and squeeze out even more water). You’ll be left with a giant ball of mushy pulp. Put this ball somewhere dry for a few weeks and you’ll have a very large chunk of very flammable paper that will burn quite well. (If you want to get it really dry, stick the mostly-dry chunk in your oven at about 250 F for a while, which will cause the water to evaporate out of it while leaving the dry paper behind.) This is wonderful firestarter for a large bonfire.
The point of these tactics is to make sure your personal identity is as safe as possible. A home shredder is a great solution for a small quantity of papers, but for larger quantities, these measures will really help.