Documents You Should Shred to Prevent Identity Theft

Credit Card Offers, Bank Statements, Canceled Checks, and More

Identity theft is so rampant that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has gone to the effort of putting together several cheat sheets to help consumers protect themselves.

The government agency offers advice on how to prevent identity theft, warning signs your identity has been stolen, and what to do if it happens to you. In the section dedicated to keeping your personal information secure, the FTC even devoted a page to types of documents you should keep and noted what you should shred.

The first list is apparent (tax-related documents, auto titles, home deeds, birth certificates, social security cards, marriage and death certificates, and more), and thus not all that insightful. The shred list⁠ includes ATM receipts, sales receipts, credit card statements, utility bills, canceled checks, and warranties.

Some of the items listed are clearly more sensitive than others, but they each contain information that can be used to steal your identity or damage you financially. For instance, ATM receipts and sales receipts may seem innocuous, since your full account number is rarely listed.

But even a partial account number, coupled with the name of your bank, can be matched with any other info that's been gleaned to open accounts in your name. Likewise, warranties generally contain personal info that can also be compromised, and so it's also best to shred them once they expire.  

Having the FTC point out this information is certainly helpful, but the one threat that's not mentioned on the list is the one that's the most imminent, a risk sitting right in front of you in plain sight every day: your mail.

Each day, the U.S. Postal Services delivers 185.8 million pieces of mail, and much of that correspondence contains sensitive personal information. A lot of it may seem like junk mail. However, as the old saying goes, somebody's junk is somebody else's treasure. Consider identity thieves the treasure hunters. Here's a deeper dive into the mail you should shred. 

Documents Containing Financial Information

Shredded paper
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An identity thief could potentially use anything that comes from a financial institution. Although you should keep copies of bank and credit card statements for record-keeping purposes, you only need to do so for three years. Anything older than that should be shredded. You should also shred canceled checks, voided checks, and any online purchase orders that contain your bank account or billing information.

Documents Containing Personal Information

Personal information is what identity thieves are after. Your date of birth and Social Security number are especially vulnerable. So shredding anything that contains that information is a good idea. Other information to be wary of is your full name, address, home or work telephone numbers, and driver’s license number.

This also applies to any mail you receive from the Internal Revenue Service, documents from the Department of Motor Vehicles, and any employment-related correspondence. Other sensitive information that should be shredded includes any travel-related materials other than your passport.

Documents Containing Account Information

Identity thieves also try to capture account numbers, usernames, and passwords. You should shred any mail printed with this information, such as credit card statements, personal and real property tax statements, and bills. You should also shred mail that contains information about your utility accounts, cell phone, and internet bills.

Junk Mail

Junk mail can be dangerous. Most people don’t realize it, but junk mail usually has a computer barcode on the front that can sometimes contain personal identifying information.

This includes so-called pre-authorized credit card offers, mail from insurance companies and lenders, and even mail from associations and other membership organizations that may have access to your personal information.

Companies market to specific demographics, often based on your age group, occupation, or purchasing habits. So you should shred all of your junk mail, including the return envelopes provided with it.

Child- and School-Related Mail

Identity thieves don't discriminate. They will steal a child's Social Security number just as soon as they would an adult's. Therefore, any mail you receive concerning your children, their medical records, and school information should go directly into the shred pile.

Likewise, if you received copies of your children's birth certificates, any mail with your authorization for school field trips, school applications, and report cards, shred them.