Avoiding identity theft: How to destroy sensitive documents

November 13, 2020

Learn how to properly destroy sensitive documents and protect your identity


A man destroying sensitive documents with a shredder

Next time you get the mail, take a moment to think about the various documents and the personal information they contain. Would you want anyone to get their hands on it? Most certainly not! Beyond mail, we regularly have dozens of different documents that all contain sensitive personal information - information that may be a treasure trove for someone looking to steal your identity.

Of course, we can't hang on to them forever, and we often need to dispose of them somehow. So how do you destroy sensitive documents and keep your information secure? Today, we'll take a look at which documents you'll want to dispose of and how to do it safely. Read on!

Why is it important to destroy sensitive documents?


While many people are primarily concerned about the security of their online transactions and their digital data, it's important to remember that traditional paper documents are commonly used by thieves who want to steal your identity. If you do not properly destroy or dispose of sensitive documents, then you will leave yourself very vulnerable to identity theft or data theft.

What types of confidential documents should you destroy?


It is important that you properly dispose of all of your sensitive documents, but these are the most important confidential documents to destroy.

Financial statements and credit card statements


Most banks and credit card companies still send financial statements through the mail, and you likely have a pile of these statements sitting in your house. While it's easy to toss outdated statements in the trash, you should remember that financial documents contain all of your private information, including your account numbers, your name and address and the balances of your accounts.

Medical records


Medical records are another example of confidential documents that you should destroy immediately. Once again, these documents include a variety of personal data, including your health insurance information, your name and identification numbers and also information about your personal health history.

Insurance records


Insurance records also often have a lot of personal information within them, which can provide potential identity thieves will plenty of opportunity to assume your identity and wreak havoc on your life.

Junk mail


Most people assume that junk mail can head straight toward the trash along with the rest of their household garbage, but junk mail has a surprising amount of personal data within it. Any credit card application that you receive, for instance, will have your full name, address and other financial information that identity thieves can use against you.

The best way to destroy sensitive documents

Shredders


Shredders are considered the best, most effective way to completely destroy confidential documents. There are many household paper shredders on the market. Not only are these appliances affordable, but they also are small enough to fit in any office space within your home. Having a personal shredder will allow you to swiftly dispose of sensitive documents.

However, it is important to remember that not all shredders are the same. They are rated based on the size of the strips they cut, known as "P levels." The higher the level, the smaller the strips become. Level P-3 satisfies the requirements for destroying HIPAA and FACTA documents, while P-7 is the only one qualified to destroy documents for the NSA. 

How to destroy sensitive documents without a shredder


Burning. In absence of a shredder, you may want to opt for burning your confidential documents. These documents can be used as kindling in a backyard bonfire. However, if you choose to burn your documents, be sure to do a slow, controlled burn and monitor it closely.

Pulping. Another option for destroying sensitive documents is pulping. You can pulp your documents by allowing them to soak in a water and bleach mixture for about 24 hours. Then, after they have been thoroughly soaked, you can use a hand blender to pulp the documents so that none of your personal information is identifiable.

Cutting or shredding by hand. Cutting or shredding your documents by hand is yet another way that you can dispose of sensitive documents. However, this may not be the most secure method of destroying confidential documents. It is important to use specific techniques, such as cross cutting, to ensure that your personal information cannot be pieced together.

Tips for destroying sensitive documents

Dispose of sensitive documents in a timely manner


Regardless of which method that you choose, it's particularly important that you dispose of sensitive documents in a timely manner. For example, if you receive an unwanted credit card application in the mail, you should destroy it that very day. As soon as medical records and insurance records are out of date, be sure to destroy them as well. The longer that you have these paper documents in your possession, the more vulnerable you will be to identity fraud.

Use shredders that minimize environmental impact


There are many different types of shredders on the market, but the best ones offer not only security but also sustainability. The most secure shredders destroy the paper into tiny, fine pieces, which take up less space in the landfill and decompose quicker.

Only partner with shredding service providers that you can trust


Some people opt to use a shredding service in order to destroy their confidential documents. If you choose to do this rather than use your own shredder, you should make sure that you are working with a service provider that is trustworthy. Before you hire them, verify that they are using the best security practices when it comes to destroying personal documents.

When you properly destroy confidential documents, you can rest easy knowing that you are making fraud prevention a top priority. The best thing you can do is dispose of sensitive documents promptly and minimize the amount of paper documents that you keep on hand.

Sensitive documents that have been destroyed by a shredder

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Read more: Destroying sensitive documents is a great way to prevent identity theft scams - like title theft. Read our blog to learn more about these types of scams and what steps you can take to avoid them!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.