How Identity Thieves Use Your Mail to Profit

Woman taking mail out of mailbox
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Identity theft often occurs when a person gains access to sensitive personal information from printed records you get in the mail that reveal your full name, address, phone number, or Social Security number. It's enough to open a new account or take over an existing one.

When high-level criminal hackers are cracking databases and stealing millions of electronic records each year, others are on the streets, using low-tech methods to steal identities.

What Identity Thieves Are Looking For

These are some of the types of postal mail identity thieves are looking for:

  • Bills
  • Bank statements
  • Financial statements
  • Checks
  • Credit card offers
  • Benefit statements
  • Income statements
  • Tax information
  • Employment papers

Though the issuers omit some data from these statements intentionally, there is often enough information remaining for a thief to fill in the missing pieces. Then, they may take over an account or open a new one in your name with all information sent to a different address.

Warning

Banks and other companies increasingly require photo identification and a PIN to verify identity, but don't rely on this. Thieves also have ways to obtain a counterfeit photo ID if they know enough about you.

Remember, the information a thief can get from your mailbox is also available in dumpsters behind the bank, utility company, your doctor’s office, and elsewhere. Thieves searching for only a few minutes in a dumpster can uncover legible records with account numbers, Social Security numbers, check photocopies with names, and more. It can be enough information to access accounts and steal identities.

Taking Precautions With Your Mail

You can take these steps to protect yourself and your information from mailbox raiding:

  • Stop getting paper statements. Electronic statements sent via email are safer and more eco-friendly as well.
  • Get a locking mailbox. Don't worry—the mail carrier won't need a key because there is a slot to place the mail.
  • Consider a post office box for sensitive mail. That way, no one can access your mail except you.
  • Monitor your mail volume. If you get less mail for a week, report it to the post office, as someone may be stealing it.
  • Pay attention to the dates of delivery. This helps you determine if bills and statements were delivered on time, or possibly taken and returned by a thief.
  • Eliminate unwanted solicitation. Request the removal of your information from marketing lists, a service of the Data & Marketing Association (DMA).
  • Choose to opt-out of any pre-approved credit card offers. This can prevent your information from being needlessly printed on additional documents.

Taking Precautions With Your Discarded Papers

When throwing away unwanted mail, be cautious about the information it contains. Be certain it doesn't contain the following:

  • Your full name
  • Your address
  • Your Social Security number
  • Your birthday
  • An account number
  • A password
  • Financial information
  • Family member data

When it comes to documents with the above information, make sure to shred them with a shredder with a crosscut before discarding. Crumpling up the paper or cutting a card in half does not protect the information from thieves. Keep the crosscut shredder where you open your mail to ensure extra convenience.

Tip

Develop the habit of immediately shredding anything containing personal information that you want to discard. Know that there are thieves who specialize in reassembling shredded documents.

Even if you are cautious and responsibly shred items that contain personal information, your mortgage broker, bank, or accountant may not be doing the same. For that reason, you may still want to purchase identity theft protection to limit potential losses.

You really cannot be too neurotic about shredding sensitive documents. Some thieves make a career out of digging through the trash in search of items such as credit card pre-approvals, bank account info, mortgage statements, and medical bills. Even an empty envelope with a return address can tell an identity thief something about you. It's another piece of the puzzle for them.

Dumpster diving is technically legal if the dumpster is in a public location. If you'd like extra security, consider storing shredded documents in a cardboard box and occasionally burning the contents in a place that is not a threat to others. Do it when it's time to burn leaves or at your next bonfire.

Other Items to Destroy Before Discarding

Identity theft is not limited to printed materials you get in the mail. Remember these items which can often contain personal information:

  • Prescription bottles
  • Old tax documents
  • Paystubs
  • ATM receipts
  • Electronic devices
  • Hard drives
  • SIM cards
  • Mobile phones
  • Thumb drives

Any financial record should generally be kept for three years from the time the related tax returns are filed, but if you can access it online, you don't need it. So shred it.

Banks and neighborhood organizations sponsor occasional shred-a-thons, where you can bring boxes of documents and watch them get safely shredded in front of you.

However, given the easy access to electronic statements, seriously consider stopping paper statements. It's one of the best ways you can protect yourself.