Phishing, malware, hacks. Lately, it seems as if the tricks that cybercriminals use to try to access your sensitive information are endless. But even with all of the advanced threats and increasingly clever online scams, one of the simplest ways for identity thieves to obtain information is often overlooked—dumpster diving.
According to NYU Law, Americans receive more than 848 pieces of junk mail per year. Much of that mail—and old documents, too—is thrown away without considering the personal information that it might contain. And that’s exactly what dumpster divers are hoping for. Moreover, according to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, we don’t have a right to privacy regarding trash if we leave it out on the curb and not on our property. So, technically, unless a local ordinance forbids it, dumpster diving is legal.
What are identity thieves looking for when they rifle through your trash?
- Documents that contain social security numbers
- Preapproved credit card offers
- Street addresses
- Phone numbers
- E-mail addresses
- Employment histories
- Bank and other financial account information
What do thieves do with this information?
A lot! Dumpster diving may be a low-tech activity, but those who do it can use the information they find to commit sophisticated crimes like tax and employment-related fraud. In fact, they can even use stolen information to get jobs that they could not have landed otherwise because they have criminal backgrounds or bad work histories.
Dumpster divers can also use the information they find to commit medical identity theft, including obtaining health insurance, medical care, and prescriptions. Worse than that, if somewhere down the line your personal medical records are found to be tampered with or fraudulent, you could risk losing health coverage or having your credit ruined. In addition, inaccurate medical records could follow you for the rest of your life.
To help protect your identity, it’s imperative to properly shred or destroy documents, external storage devices, or anything else that includes sensitive information before disposal. So keep the following in mind before tossing old documents:
- Keep documents only as long as you need them or as long as you’re legally required to keep them. (Routinely review your paperwork to be sure that you’re not keeping anything longer than necessary.)
- If an organization offers you paperless billing and communications, sign up for it!
- When you upload documents, shred the originals once you are sure that they’ve been uploaded.