Bad guys dumpster dive for information they can use or sell. Even if you’ve got excellent cyber hygiene, you won’t be protected from physical data theft unless you take steps to secure your trash.
Paper, computer drives, external storage and smart devices all contain stockpiles of personal information that scammers can use in high-tech data crimes. Learn how to secure your paper and electronic waste from low-tech attacks.
Is your trash worth the effort?
Personal information can be bought and sold, making your trash potentially attractive to criminals. You could be unwittingly handing over valuable nuggets like:
- Email addresses and contact information
- Credit card offers
- Street addresses
- Social security numbers
- Children’s information (names, social security numbers and birthdates)
- Telephone numbers
- Bank account information
- Employment information
- Tax return information
- Financial information
- Medical information
- Household names
- Estate information (after the death of a loved one)
- Shopping habits (names of companies you trust)
- Handwritten signatures
- Printed emails (could contain personal information about you and your contacts, your job title, client information from work or other sensitive data)
Even if you shred some of your information, you might be overlooking the boring stuff that criminals count on when running a scam.
What criminals can do with your information
Criminals don’t need a complete profile of information to do damage. Scammers can use parts of your identity to:
- Receive unemployment benefits in your name
- Fund a loan in your name
- Open a bank account in your name or transfer funds out of your legitimate account into an offshore account
- Apply for health benefits using your information
- Receive Medicare using your information
- Open a credit card in your name
- Falsely file a government tax return
- Create a new identity using your information
- Create an identity from scratch using a child’s blank slate report
- Rent a home using your identity
- Open utilities in your name
They might also use your information against you in a phishing attack. A criminal can make a scam email seem more legitimate by posing as a company you regularly buy from to get you to click on a fraudulent link.
Not all scams are immediate
Some scams are long-haul operations that can go undetected for years, such as child identity theft. The theft becomes evident after the victim applies for a legitimate loan or other services (like a college loan or a phone) and is denied.
If you suspect you’re a victim of a scam:
- Visit identitytheft.gov to start a record of your identity theft incident and make a personalized plan.
- Review the Federal Trade Commission’s advice on how to protect children from identity theft.
Make a habit of checking your credit report and reviewing your open accounts. Some credit cards and independent services offer credit and dark web monitoring (including for minor children).
Prevention tips for taking out the trash
Dumpster diving is legal in most states. Once your trash hits the curb, it’s fair game for the bad guys. Take proactive steps to protect your information:
- Remove labels from packages before recycling. Besides your address, they may display your email and phone number.
- Peel off labels on medication bottles before recycling and shred identifying information on the paper inserts.
- Use a secure shredding company for document and device disposal. Some will destroy the information while you watch.
- Check with your bank or municipality about free secure shredding events in your area.
- Purchase a quality crosscut or confetti document shredder that can manage staples, paper clips, CDs and external drives. Refer to the National Security Agency/Central Security Service’s evaluated products list for paper shredders if you’re unsure where to start.
- Wipe or secure erase computer disks to remove data before retiring or recycling them.
- Remove memory cards and perform hard resets on tablets, smartphones and office equipment to reset the data to factory defaults.
- Securely destroy computer drives and embedded memory on office equipment using magnetic media degaussers (magnetizing) or solid-state destruction (shredding, crushing or disintegrating) before discarding them.
Consider what your unwanted mail or defunct flash drive contains before tossing it in the trash. Your garbage might be an identity scammer’s gold.