Take Out the Trash… Securely!

shred your trash

I just read an entertaining and interesting story that was published about 16 years ago in Willamette Week, an indie newspaper in Portland, OR. This article was published shortly after 9/11 and the sweeping new government surveillance powers that came as a result. In particular, the article discussed a rather disturbing investigative technique used by local law enforcement: stealing trash from the curb. The Supreme Court apparently believes this to be completely constitutional – once you ‘abandon’ your trash and place it off your property (at the curb), you give up any expectation of privacy. The Portland authorities were vocal in supporting this practice… so a few plucky reporters at Willamette Week decided to test their conviction. They stole the trash of the DA, the chief of police and the mayor… and they were not happy. It’s well worth a read.

Setting aside the legal aspects, this article loudly recommends an old-school security tip: shred your trash! It’s not just about preventing law enforcement or government agencies from snooping through your garbage, though – anyone can do it and do it legally. You no longer own the documents, debris and other detritus that you put out at the curb. And that smelly junk could provide identity thieves or nosy neighbors with some really juicy info.

What Trash to Shred

At a high level, you want to shred anything that’s private and personal. That would include financial, medical, and legal papers. That probably seems obvious, but I’ll bet you still throw away a lot of stuff that you should be shredding. You should shred all of these…

  • Utility bills, statements
  • Medical bills, statements
  • Tax statements, records
  • Bank, credit card and investing statements
  • Insurance documents and statements
  • Voided or canceled checks
  • Pay stubs
  • Purchase receipts
  • ATM receipts
  • Birth & death certificates
  • Social security cards
  • Legal documents, contracts
  • Marriage, divorce, custody documents
  • Expired passports
  • Resumes
  • Used airline tickets or baggage labels (those bar codes contain personal info)
  • Prescription information and labels from the bottles/packages
  • Credit card, loan and insurance offers from the mail
  • Old credit, debit and ID cards
  • Data CDs or DVDs

Buying a Good Home Shredder

You’re going to want to buy a decent shredder for this work. The main feature you want is cross-cutting. Strip-cutting shredders that just cut paper into long, thin strips are not good enough. Even cross-cut paper can be painstakingly re-assembled, but it’s a lot harder – especially if it’s mixed up with a bunch of other shredded documents.

You can also buy shredders that can handle credit cards and optical disks (CDs and DVDs) in addition to paper, which is very handy. We don’t use CDs and DVDs much anymore to store data – which is possibly why you might be throwing them away. When you get rid of old credit cards, or when some company sends you a ‘starter card’ as part of a mailed offer, you definitely want to shred them before you throw them out.

The last thing to consider is size of the output bin. I would just get yourself the biggest one that fits your needs – it means having to empty it less often, and mixes a lot more stuff up together. The Wirecutter has a a nice write-up on some very affordable shredders.

[On a related note, if you need to send digital files securely, I have a full write-up on that here.]

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