dumpster divingIt’s easy to accumulate trash, especially with all the mail you receive, such as pre-approved credit card offers, junk mail and important documents. With all of that mail, it may be tempting to toss all of it into the nearest dumpster or recycling bin without further action. However, you’ll want to avoid doing just that. What you consider to be rubbish could contain sensitive personal information that would make for an identity thief’s gold mine. That’s why proper disposal is a must if you want to protect your and others’ identities. Keep reading to find out more about why you should be careful about what you throw away and recycle and find out how you can dispose of your trash properly, decreasing the odds of you and your loved ones from becoming identity theft victims.

How can dumpster diving lead to identity theft?

As mentioned before, your trash can be a treasure trove of information for identity thieves. The mail that you toss out could already reveal many personal details that you wouldn’t want in the wrong hands, such as your social security number, bank account information, telephone number, pre-approved credit card offers and other sorts of personal information. Receipts, bills, checks, tax information, statements and documents that you throw out could also reveal further information about the purchases you make and other sensitive information. Even trashing something with your name and address can be damaging to your identity. And it isn’t just paper documents that could reveal information about you. Any devices that you dispose of, such as your smartphone or computer, can also store vast amounts of your data if you don’t get rid of them properly. Want to learn more about how to properly dispose of your devices? Our guide details what you need to know.

Depending on what criminals are able to obtain from your discarded paperwork, they could throw your life into utter chaos. For example, they could draw on your stolen information to open credit card and bank accounts under your name, use your identity to receive medical treatments, implicate you in a crime and even more. Also, another point to keep in mind: if you happen to throw out personal information belonging to others without proper care, such as your clients’ social security numbers and data, their identities could be compromised too.

Is dumpster diving really something to worry about?

It’s hard to know exactly how often dumpster diving takes place because it’s not always caught or reported by the victim, and the source of information on the dark web or that otherwise gets used for identity theft isn’t always known. While there are some statistics about dumpster diving, it’s hard to know how accurate they are, as they’re usually just surveying the average consumer and not criminals. While dumpster diving likely isn’t the primary way cybercriminals get your information (data breaches offer a lot more victims’ data at once), it’s still something to worry about. Plus, dumpster diving is something that’s easily combatable with proper disposal.

Something else that’s worth mentioning is that dumpster diving technically isn’t illegal in all places in the U.S. However, the legality of this practice depends on the county and city you live in.

What’s the proper way to dispose of mail and paperwork?

You will want to make sure you’re throwing out everything you need to, and that you are disposing of all documents in a way that would prevent criminals from piecing together your information. Here’s how to do that:

Your shredder should be one of your new best friends

You may be tempted to rip up or cut your mail and paperwork yourself, but these processes make it possible for the pieces to be easily put back together — even 7-year-old children can do it. Instead, the trick is to invest in a shredder that can cut up all these documents for you. We recommend that you get a cross-cut shredder that can shred payment cards and discs at the very least, or, better yet, a micro-cut shredder (something that’s recommended to those who need to destroy highly sensitive information, such as lawyers). Strip-cut shredders may cut up the documents, but they are not thorough enough to make the materials unpatchable. If shredding the materials yourself isn’t feasible because of your schedule or you don’t want to purchase your own shredder, you can consider using a shredding service — just make sure the service shreds your documents while you’re present. By disposing of your materials through your shredder or through a shredding service, you can decrease the chances of identity theft resulting from dumpster diving.

What should you shred?

Now that you know the proper way to shred your trash, you may be wondering what documents you should be shredding. To make things easier for you, here’s a list of the materials you’ll want to shred if you aren’t planning to keep them:

  • Anything with your name, address and other personal information on it
  • Pre-approved credit card offers
  • Any checks you don’t plan to use, including convenience checks
  • Your bills and statements, including bank, credit card, electric, cell phone and TV/Internet bills
  • Tax documents
  • Travel-related documents
  • Anything containing personal information pertaining to your household members, such as your children, and others
  • Items with signatures

While the above list is pretty extensive, we should note that it’s not complete, as there may be other documents pertaining to you that should also be destroyed. Remember that if the document has at least your name and address, it should be shredded.

A word on recycling

When you’re going to recycle your trash, you’ll also want to follow the same guidelines when it comes to disposing of your trash. That’s because it’s still possible for dumpster diving to occur if your documents and other items are sitting in a recycling bin. Be aware that not all curbside recycling programs take shredded paper (make sure to check your program to see if it does), so if you are under such circumstances but still want to protect your identity, there are other steps you can take to make sure that your shredded paper is disposed of in an environmentally friendly way. For instance, there are shredding services that will shred your materials and recycle them for you, such as The UPS Store. You could also use the shredded materials as packing material or donate them to an animal shelter, which you could learn more about here. If your recycling program does take shredded materials, be sure to follow any packing instructions that it specifies (e.g., putting the shredded materials in a paper or plastic bag).

Other ways to protect your identity

While these are important steps you can take to decrease your chances of succumbing to identity theft, it’s still possible for criminals to get their hands on your personal information through other means. As such, to increase your odds of catching identity theft and fraud earlier on, you’ll want to make sure that you’re monitoring your credit reports from all three major bureaus (or at the very least, check them regularly), and you’ll want to keep tabs on your credit card and bank statements to catch signs of fraudulent activity.

Now that you know more about dumpster diving and how to protect yourself from it, discover more ways you can protect yourself and your family from identity theft. To get started, take a look at our reviews of identity theft protection services and follow our identity theft blog.