Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fighting Identity Theft

Years ago, I realized that I had a problem.

Like most people, I had store receipts, bank statements, etc that had important, personal information about myself that could do me real harm if they ever got into the hands of someone who wanted to steal my identity. Rather than take my chances or try to destroy them by tearing them up or even burning them, I bought a paper shredder. Going through that mountain of papers that I no longer needed, but couldn't allow to get into the wrong hands, took awhile.

At the end of that first Big Shred, I felt an enormous peace of mind. In addition to the important stuff, I also shredded newspapers and junk mail, in order to better frustrate all but the most hardworking identity thief. Anything paper went into the shredder. So far, my efforts seem to have paid-off.

With many pieces of mail I receive (e.g. utility bills, bank statements) I also receive envelopes in which to mail replies or payments. I save these to put store receipts in, to better mix them up in the Pile of shredded paper.

I've gone through three paper shredders over the years. I typically buy the type made for offices, which are made for shredding large amounts of paper into hard-to-reassemble fragments. A somewhat costly initial investment (between $50 to $60) that has given me years of nearly guaranteed assurance that there's no one out there taking out a credit card in my name due to some slip-up on my part.

I've even learned how to keep my shredder blades clean in order to prolong the life of my shredder. After unplugging the device, I open it up to reveal the blades and manually pick out the stuck pieces. I save empty cereal boxes and - after reattaching the top portion of the shredder and plugging it back in - run them through the shredder to get out any remaining fragments stuck in the blades. I do this a few times until the blades look clean.

People might ask me what the odds really are that someone would try to steal my identity. My answer would be that my odds are no better or worse than anyone else's and if past victims of identity theft had taken the steps that I have, they might not have been victimized in the first place.

So, if you're willing to invest the time, effort and money:
1) go buy yourself a good, office-quality paper shredder. The best kind are the ones that cut the paper into tiny, diamond shaped pieces;
2) collect all papers you have that contain information you don't want to get into the wrong hands (e.g. store receipts, credit card statements, credit card applications, bank statements, etc) that you really don't need to hang onto;
3) collect a certain amount of extra unimportant papers (e.g. junk mail, newspapers, election year mailings) to shred and mix in with the important stuff;
4) gather a good number of envelopes that came with the mail. You'll put the store receipts in these. Put in as many as can fit that will still allow the shredder to cut properly. You can simply close the envelope with scotch tape, so you don't get that disgusting taste in your mouth;
5) start shredding. If you don't have a lot to start with, you don't need to worry so much. Just get it done. But, if you're like me and had a lot to start, just take your time. Take a break once in awhile, to allow the machine to cool off. Empty the bin if it gets full. I usually prefer to use a 30 gallon trash bag to put it all in. Shred important stuff and unimportant stuff at the same time to allow the papers to mix in the bin;
6) once you're done, you can throw in a few more things to discourage anyone from going through your pile, such as water, old milk or used cooking oil to help the ink on the paper run or dissolve the fragments better. Toss in some household trash, if you like.

You may be wondering if this is all worth it. Would a potential identity thief go through all this trouble? Enduring the smell of your rotting garbage, trying to reassemble your shredded papers, etc?

Well, the really hardcore type would either do it themselves or have some lackey do it. If you're a home owner, an elderly person with good credit, a business owner, an 18 to 24 year old that puts too much information about themselves on the Internet or anyone else that an identity thief think they'll be able to get some good credit cards by impersonating, then: Yes, they would.

After the initial shred, hold onto those return envelopes you get in the mail, if you're not going to use them, and keep them to put store receipts in that you don't need to keep. At the end of the day or once a week, put the receipts into one of these envelopes and shred them. Shred any pieces of mail you get that you don't need for later. Don't let the paper pile-up and you won't again have a big pile to shred later or be tempted to simply throw them away.

I'll grant that this is a very basic, even amateurish approach. Computer hackers can steal your passwords simply hacking into your computer, your smartphone, credit card company or bank databases. But, these things are outside your control and we're forced to rely on computer professionals to try to prevent this sort of thing from happening.

But, the papers you have are under your control and you can take this step to try to put some of your own effort into protecting yourself.

Duane Browning
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