Securing Identities: A Step-by-Step Guide to Document Shredding

Shredded Paper | © Mike Haw / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0
© Mike Haw / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0

Spring is in the air and it’s the perfect excuse I need to begin the process of cleaning and reorganizing my home/desk/life. I’ve never been much of a hoarder but working at Better Business Bureau for the last few years has reinforced my fear of throwing away any pieces of paper that have personal information on them—after all, most identity theft still occurs via physical methods like dumpster diving and mail theft. And in case you’re wondering, I have a lot of pieces of paper that have personal information on them. So in preparation for the upcoming BBB Secure Your ID Day free document shredding event, I decided to take action. Hopefully my strategy will offer some insight to people in similar situations.

1) Decide what to keep and what not to keep. BBB has a great PDF Records Retention Schedule that lists the most common items and how long they should be kept—based on guidelines from the Internal Revenue Service—and I used it to create four groups of documents:

  • Old stuff to keep forever. The bottom line is that some items simply need to be held on to indefinitely—like previous tax returns, retirement account contributions, deeds and mortgage paperwork.
  • Old stuff to keep for seven years. The IRS recommends keeping documents anywhere from one to seven years, but to simplify the process I just decided to make it easy: If something is on the retention schedule at all and less than seven years old, it will go in the “keep” pile.
  • Current stuff to keep. For the current year’s taxes, I need to hold on to everything from the most recent calendar year. However, it won’t do me any good to mix it all in with the seven-year pile so it gets its own group.
  • Stuff to destroy. Everything else. That happy hour receipt is a great reminder of an afternoon well spent, but poses no real reason to be saved.

2) Sort everything. I gathered all the papers I could find and made a big pile. With BBB’s Record Retention Schedule in front of me it was easy to stick to my four groups.

3) Organize the documents that need to be kept. This is by far the most complicated part of the process. Moving forward, I want it to be super easy to find old papers when I need them. To accomplish this I started a filing system. Organizing documents by type is a great way to maximize efficiency—let’s say I need an insurance document but I’m not sure which year it was filed; I just pop out my insurance folder and it’s there, somewhere. Each folder is organized chronologically, with the most recent documents in front and the seven-year-old documents in the back. I created six different folders:

  • Credit Card/Purchasing Documents
  • Bank Documents
  • Investment Documents
  • Insurance Documents
  • Tax Documents
  • Home/Residence & Personal Documents

4) Shred. Now I’m set to shred. BBB offers two free document shredding events per year—one right after taxes are due in April and the other during National Cyber Security Awareness Month in October. For dates, locations and times make sure to regularly check

5) Be proactive in protecting identities. A personal shredder is officially on my shopping list so that I can keep up with secure document destruction all year long. And I signed up for BBB’s eNewsletter, Torch Report: News for the Savvy Consumer, for ID theft prevention tips and scam alerts delivered right to my inbox every month.

Remember, identity theft is a big deal. Shred it and forget it.