As we embrace spring cleaning, we should also think about what to do with documents we have that contain sensitive information. Data privacy includes not only online privacy, data breaches, and smart phones, but our personal papers and documents too. We will tackle many of these issues in our Data Privacy Series. Our first installment of this series concerns an important component for consumers: shredding.

As you know, many scammers and identity thieves want your personal information. One easy way they can obtain that information is to go dumpster diving. Here’s how it works: Have you thrown away any of those pre-approved credit card offers?  What about your pay stubs, credit card statements, bank statements, health or home insurance information, retirement plan statements, your W2, or tax returns? Those documents do contain sensitive personal information, such as your bank account number, your insurance or health information, and of course, your most valuable asset, your social security number. If you disposed of some or all of these documents in your home trash barrel, and the dumpster divers accessed those papers, they would more than likely know your address, too.  Fraudsters may make use of your personal information to access your accounts, spend your money, use your insurance coverage, open a line of credit in your name, and commit other fraud.  All of these actions will cost you money and time, and they could potentially ruin your credit history.

To protect against this criminal behavior, shred your documents and unwanted mail on a regular basis. You can buy a home shredder for your personal use at any office supply or big box store. The cost could run anywhere from $20 to $200, depending upon the size and features. You could also use one of the many commercial businesses located around Massachusetts that provide shredding services at their location or at an offsite location. Commercial shredding companies usually charge between $10 to $20 per box of materials, or around $0.80 to $1.00 per pound for loose materials. Be aware that there may also be a transportation fee for offsite shredding.

We suggest that you first conduct an inventory at home to determine the volume of documents you have in your possession that you would like shredded. You should compare prices and features for home shredders and commercial shredding companies as there are many from which to choose. Shredding is one simple step you can take to protect yourself from fraudsters who seek any means of accessing and stealing your personal information.

Here is a list of the documents you might consider shredding with a suggested timeline for retention:

  • Tax Returns and Supporting Documents: 7 years for auditing purposes, but
  • you might consider keeping the tax returns to ensure you have proof for your file
  • Bank statements: 1 year
  • Pay stubs: 1 year
  • Medical bills: 1 year (but keep any for which you have any unresolved medical dispute)
  • Credit card bills: shred immediately after you pay it
  • Utility bills: shred immediately after you pay it
  • Sales receipts: shred immediately (except keep it if related to warranties, taxes, insurance, or you plan to use it for other purposes)
  • Auto titles: keep until you sell the car
  • Deed to your home: keep until you sell

Keep forever and in a safe place:

  • Birth or adoption certificates
  • Social Security cards
  • Citizenship or passports
  • Marriage or divorce decrees
  • Death certificates of family members