How stupid would it be to trash the old financial stuff?
June 15, 2008 1:39 PM   Subscribe

How dangerous is throwing out old financial records, really? Don't want to pay to shred, and lots of peoples' trash is mixed with mine...

I'm a student at a major university with many, many people's trash mixed together into large dumpsters. I'm trying to get rid of several years of old financial records, just full of things like SSNs, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, etc.

Does anyone have a sense as to how dangerous it really is to just toss it all into one of the big bins? Do people really go rooting through them? Is it more or less dangerous to throw it into the paper recycling one?

Alternatively, does anyone have any quick and easy destruction method for about 50 pounds of paper that doesn't require the ability to burn or shred and can happen without paying some professional?
posted by paultopia to Work & Money (41 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
...just full of things like SSNs...

And there you have your answer. What's the chances of someone rooting through your trash? Relatively slim. What's the chances of you being royally screwed should it happen? 100%.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 1:57 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Shred. Shred. Shred. It's very dangerous, particularly in an area where a lot of people have a lot of records like that that they're throwing out. Buy a $50 shredder at Staples, a couple of 6-packs, and go to town.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 1:57 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Shred. While the risk is very low if you don't, you'll sleep better.

If you don't have the time or money to do it, I suggest putting the papers in an opaque bag and putting it in the garbage and not the paper recycling. Bad for the planet, but less risky than the recycling. People handle recycling (as opposed to regular garbage headed for a landfill) , and potential identity thieves are more likely to be looking through clean paper than through nasty old garbage.
posted by Xoebe at 2:04 PM on June 15, 2008

beaucoupkevin has it on the head. Even better, since I'm guessing you're dorming or otherwise in University housing, you'll likely not even pay for the electricity to shred the stuff.

Pro tip: If you get one of the cheapo strip shredders instead of the nice cross-cut shredders, make erratic folds (like one or two) in your papers before shredding them, and then mix the strips all about in the garbage bag. This will make your paper slightly harder to steal.
Even so, I'd recommend the cross-cut ones.
posted by Xoder at 2:05 PM on June 15, 2008

Shred. Place in opaque garbage bad. Add substantial amount of organic stinky garbage. Dispose of with refuse--not recycle.

No shredder? If you have access to an office of most any kind, you have access to a shredder.
posted by hexatron at 2:11 PM on June 15, 2008

Shred, if you haven't got a shredder find somebody who does and borrow it. Or even better use work resources...
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:15 PM on June 15, 2008

All of the above, but also this: a person interested in identity fraud may not be up to sifting through bag after bag of people's trash looking for an SSN themselves. However, they can easily offer a tweaker 5 bucks per number found, and there are plenty of addicts out there who would happily spend hours and hours sifting through your junk knowing a fix was just a short time away. It's easy and safe, a much better option than a lot of people have for feeding their dependence.
posted by Science! at 2:15 PM on June 15, 2008

Well, if you are a student at a university, people will probably be going through your trash at moveout because it is, in college towns, prime dumpster diving season. The best thing you could do, if you don't want to track down a paper shredder, is to mix your financial papers with something disgusting. Can you soak them in tomato juice? Can you pour Pepsi all over them? Etc? And then yeah, opaque trashbags.
posted by mustcatchmooseandsquirrel at 2:16 PM on June 15, 2008

Shred, mix with regular garbage, then take it directly to your local municipal dump so it doesn't sit out on the curb or in the Dumpster.

Or: do you have a friend with a fireplace? 5 minutes at your friend's house will make quick work of all of it.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 2:19 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Alternatively, does anyone have any quick and easy destruction method for about 50 pounds of paper that doesn't require the ability to burn or shred and can happen without paying some professional?

Fill giant plastic tub with water, soak a pound or two of paper at a time for several hours until it becomes absolute pulp. Mix or agitate until there's not a hint of intact paper left. Filter out pulp, add more paper.

Bonus, make crafty homemade paper or cards with the pulp.
posted by Science! at 2:19 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

An article on Lifehacker recently says "to save space and money, I have never bought a document shredder. I just stuff incriminating documents in a stocking and toss them in the washing machine". However, 50lbs of paper would be several loads, and there's a fair chance you'll kill your washer. Really, just buy a cheap shredder.
posted by wilko at 2:29 PM on June 15, 2008

If you are at a school and you recycle the papers, somebody almost certainly will be sorting through them to separate different grades of paper, and will likely see your stuff. Odds are, they won't care, but you never know. I had that job for a while, and saw all sorts of things that I wasn't supposed to (faculty salaries, personal emails to the president of the school, etc).
posted by Dr.Enormous at 2:40 PM on June 15, 2008

Are you kidding? You're going to turn down a reason to do some shreading?

It's pretty likely your university has shreaders what with all the personal records they handle. Look in your department's copier room, and/or ask a member of staff there.
posted by Mike1024 at 2:42 PM on June 15, 2008

Buy a cheap shredder, then set yourself up in business shredding other people's personal data for them.
posted by Solomon at 2:42 PM on June 15, 2008

If you're going to burn your financial records, don't do it at a friend's barbecue in their fire pit. It creates a lot of nasty smoke.
posted by sswiller at 2:43 PM on June 15, 2008

Response by poster: The issue is mostly that the shredding would be immensely time consuming. There are a LOT of documents here. I filled one of those giant garden trash bags with documents.

Hmm... the burning thing seems most efficient... does anyone have any tips on finding somewhere where it's ok to burn huge piles of documents, given that I live on a suburban campus and don't know anyone with a fireplace? (Maybe a state beach?)
posted by paultopia at 2:53 PM on June 15, 2008

I burn un-needed paper with anything I consider sensitive on it. If you don't have a fireplace, you could use it as the firestarters for a beach BBQ. Get some records, some driftwood, some sausages...
posted by rodgerd at 3:01 PM on June 15, 2008

Ask the groundskeepers if they ever have a fire?
posted by Solomon at 3:07 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

My office has big boxes with drop slots that we can put documents into for confidential shredding and recycling. When I want to get rid of old documents I just take them to work and throw them in the box. Your school office or student center might have this type of system, or you could find a friend with an office job (who you trust) and ask them to toss the documents for you.
posted by Gortuk at 3:08 PM on June 15, 2008

Buy a shredder. Not only will it solve today's problem, but you can use it for every other piece of sensitive paper you get from now on. I use mine every day.

I'll share my word of experience with Sciene!'s bathtub trick: I did this once because I was staying in a hotel and had a large pile of miscelaneous paper to get rid of securely. It mostly worked, but created a giant mess. Some stuff wasn't wood pulp or was heavily coated and would simply not fall apart, which left me with a soggy, but still readable mess I ahd to deal with another way. The various inks and colorings used in the paper conspired to do something nasty to the interior of the tub. All in all I would not do it again.

The sock in the washer idea seems like a giant waste. The cost of electricity and hot water would pay for a shredder in just a few cycles.
posted by Ookseer at 3:09 PM on June 15, 2008

Instead of shredding (I never thought of fire), what I do is get a bucket and put the papers inside and fill it with water and let it soak over night. The next morning I mush it up into a totally illegible ball of mulch and throw it in the trash.
posted by milarepa at 3:09 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

don't know anyone with a fireplace

That's for the best—burning paper in a fireplace is a good way to catch your roof on fire.
posted by limeonaire at 3:13 PM on June 15, 2008

Alternatively, just pay somebody. Paper companies are out there that do mass shredding for companies, and have storefronts for drop off shredding. We're talking 2 or 3 bucks a bag. At the ones I've seen, a bag is equal to a smallish shopping cart. Pay the 10-15 bucks, and just get it done. It's a lot cheaper than you'd guess. At least look into it.
posted by cschneid at 3:25 PM on June 15, 2008

i would shred. you could burn them in a metal trash can. i imagine you could do this at any campsite that permits fires. or if you know someone with some land, do it there.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:35 PM on June 15, 2008

You're looking for a Shred-a-Thon. Many areas hold these periodically -- bring a box of stuff, they throw it into one of those big industrial shredders. Usually provided free as a public service. Check your local listings.
posted by sageleaf at 3:36 PM on June 15, 2008

Burn 'em.
posted by delmoi at 3:38 PM on June 15, 2008

Recently in the town where I live, the city and one of the big garbage/recycling companies hosted a free "document destruction day." I took several bags full, but some people showed up with pickup truck loads! They guaranteed destruction, and indeed you could watch them put your stuff on the conveyer belt into the giant industrial shredder. I wonder if you could look into whether there is anything similar in your area? Where I live, special recycling events like that are usually annual events, and are hosted by cities or townships.
posted by not that girl at 3:42 PM on June 15, 2008

Check with your bank. My bank (Wells Fargo) will let customers drop off old bank statements, unused checks with old addresses, etc. for destruction along with the branch's sensitive documents. My favored branch doesn't care if you throw in a few credit card statements as well.
posted by nathan_teske at 3:57 PM on June 15, 2008

What's all this business about shredding? Has nobody heard of scissors?
posted by idiomatika at 3:57 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Figure out some way to soak them all in black ink? I'd either go that route or the $50 Staples shredder route.
posted by Precision at 4:04 PM on June 15, 2008

The issue is mostly that the shredding would be immensely time consuming. There are a LOT of documents here. I filled one of those giant garden trash bags with documents.

I guess you need to weigh up the cost in terms of time of adequately disposing of this material against the costs in terms of time of recovering your financial identity in the extreme possibilty that someone steals it because you didn't adequately dispose of that material. Me? Shred it all.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 4:10 PM on June 15, 2008

I'm with Gortuk on this one. I'd be very surprised if your university doesn't have the facility for secure document removal, all the Universities I've been at do and we're way less careful about this stuff in New Zealand. Go ask it your faculty reception, department secretaries know everything. If they can't help move on to the main administration department, Universities generate a lot of paperwork and it must get dealt with somehow.

The place I work now doesn't have the safe recycling bins all the time but gets them in for a couple of months every year. So ask about that too, i.e. if they don't have something now will they later on?.

Lastly, big organisations often have their own rubbish incinerator. It could be pretty easy for one of the service staff to throw in a big paper bag full of paper to be disposed of, so ask about that option also.
posted by shelleycat at 4:10 PM on June 15, 2008

Roll the papers into logs, then have a beach party and toast marshmellows over your finances. Or go camping.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:08 PM on June 15, 2008

Seconding the Shred-A-Thon! We have done this two years running, and it is awesome. Basically, a local business (here it's the NBC station) works with a document shredding company and sponsors an all-day shred event. You show up with your carload of shreddable stuff, the good Shred-A-Thon folks help you carry it all to some massive shredding trucks, and your piles of documents are shredded in one of those enormous shredders that could shred a couch.
posted by mothershock at 6:16 PM on June 15, 2008

does anyone have any tips on finding somewhere where it's ok to burn huge piles of documents

Some parks have gazebos with small fire grills. I've burned papers in fire pits like that.
posted by rhapsodie at 6:21 PM on June 15, 2008

Put a bunch of paper in a heavy duty trash bag, pour some dishwashing liquid (please get an environmentally OK kind) on it, pour some water on it to get most of the paper wet (not completely drenched, it'd be too heavy..), mix it up a bit, repeat.
posted by citron at 9:48 PM on June 15, 2008

Yes, yes, yes to shredding, and almost all banks and universities have means to shred the documents you have. But one IMPORTANT step further that most people overlook: most states now offer the ability to put a lock on your credit record. You can send a letter to the big three: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax asking for a hold to be placed, and the max fee for any of them is no more than $15. What does this do? No one can open an account in your name. Yes, you would have to un-freeze and re-freeze later via a letter, but you won't have a catastrophe on your hands as some unlucky folks have learned the hard way. If anyone's curious, I'll dig up the form letters I quickly adapted and sent in, as well as a list of the states who have passed this (much appreciated) legislation getting the credit companies in line.
posted by Arch1 at 10:10 PM on June 15, 2008

people go "dumpster diving" a lot. you don't have to pay to shred, find some scissors. make sure no numbers or names can be recognized by a piece of strip. Don't risk assuming people wont find it in a bin of lots of other trash, anything is possible. Better safe than sorry.
posted by Mikimi at 11:06 PM on June 15, 2008

Response by poster: Well, pleasant news -- those shredding companies are much cheaper than I thought.
posted by paultopia at 11:54 AM on June 16, 2008

Here's a list of free shredding days by USA region:
posted by grateful at 12:14 PM on June 16, 2008

I'm fairly certain that, in most normal fires, you'd spend more time making paper burn than it would take to feed it to a shredder. Stacks of paper don't burn easily. They smolder.
posted by Goofyy at 12:44 PM on June 16, 2008

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