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How to Properly Dispose of Private Personal Information


You can never be too safe when it comes to your personal information. As we mentioned in an earlier blog, creating strong passwords for online accounts is your first line of defense to keep your personal information safe online. You can read more about creating a strong password for additional online protection HERE.

The world around us is quickly going completely digital. Businesses and companies of all kinds are implementing, if they haven’t already, a digital or electronic option for their members or customers. Whether it is a newsletter, advertisement, or even a utility bill, digital delivery aims to offer a faster, convenient, less expensive, and more secure option to meet your needs.

Even though there is an electronic or digital option for your products, services, needs, and even wants, you probably still receive some bills, financial statements, or general mail in a physical paper form. In a world that has gone digital, it is important to know how to protect your personal information online, but it is just as important to know how to protect your personal information on physical documents, bills, and mail too, especially when you are throwing that information away.

What is the purpose?

When disposing of physical forms of confidential information, most likely types of paperwork or documents, there are various ways to make sure you are disposing of the information safely and properly. Simply throwing documents away without a second thought can provide the opportunity for your private information to wind up in the wrong hands. 

In today’s digital world it is easier than ever before for someone to pretend to be someone else. Identity thieves aren’t limited to using just the internet and password hacking to gain access to your sensitive information. Old fashioned “dumpster diving”-literally digging through your trash-is a popular method of stealing large amounts of your personal information. The old saying still goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s line of credit treasure.” 

It is important to know how to properly dispose of your personal information found on physical items like junk mail, bills, expired credit or debit cards, and prescription bottles to protect yourself from being a victim of identity theft and keep your personal information private and secure.

What types of confidential information should you use caution when disposing?

The easy answer: Anything that has personally identifiable information printed or labeled on it.

The long answer: Personally Identifiable Information is any type of data that can be traced to a specific individual. It covers a wide variety of information that can distinguish you. These are some of the types of items that count as personally identifiable information:

  • Name
  • Address
  • Email
  • Telephone Number
  • Date of Birth
  • Passport Number
  • Driver’s License Number
  • Credit or Debit Card Numbers
  • Vehicle Registration Numbers
  • Financial Account Numbers
  • Medical Patient Identification Numbers
  • Social Security Number

These are some examples of physical documents or items that contain personally identifiable information:

  • Utility Bills (phone, gas, electric, water, cable, internet)
  • Canceled or voided checks
  • Address labels from junk mail or magazines
  • ATM receipts
  • Bank statements
  • Expired passports or visas
  • Prescription Bottles
  • Used Airline Tickets
  • Identification Cards
  • Expired credit and debit cards

The list could go on and on and on and on… you get the point, right?

How to dispose of paper confidential information:

So, how should you dispose of these documents to protect yourself? Here are a few options:

Shred It: Making your information unreadable to would-be thieves is one of the best ways to protect yourself. There are multiple ways to shred your confidential paper documents effectively.

  • Shred by hand: This is by far the most labor and time-intensive. It is not the most secure method, but it is simple and FREE (besides your valuable time, of course). When shredding by hand, be sure to tear the sensitive parts of the documents into multiple pieces. It is also highly recommended to dispose of the various pieces into different trash bins. By separating all of the pieces, there is less of a chance of someone finding all of the pieces of a particular document and piecing them back together, if they are able to access your trash.
  • Purchase and Use a Paper Shredder: There are various retailers that sell paper shredders. They vary in price, so if you are ballin’ on a budget you can find a quality paper shredder for about $50. While a paper shredder can save on time, there are some cons. Some people find paper shredders noisy and obnoxious. Also, depending on the number of documents you are shredding, you could need routine maintenance or frequent replacement of your shredder if it is not high quality. 
  • Purchase and Use Paper Shredding Scissors: If you are not up for the noise or maintenance of a paper shredder, look into purchasing paper shredding scissors. These scissors have multiple blades that you can use to manually cut your documents into multiple strips. Like shredding by hand, this option is a little more time-intensive, and you will need to be sure to cut the sensitive parts of the documents into multiple pieces.
  • Take Advantage of a Local Shred Day: Many local businesses or organizations provide free “Shred Days” for communities to safely dispose of their confidential documents. Check with recycling companies, Chambers of Commerce, or other local organizations to see if there are any “Shred Days” coming up in your area!
  • Use a Local Paper Shredding Service: Try a quick Google search to check with your local UPS or FedEx to see if they provide shredding services! Typically, these facilities offer this service for a small rate per pound. 

Burn Them: This isn’t the most eco-friendly option and NOT a highly recommended method. If you absolutely have to burn your documents, first check your local laws regarding trash burning before lighting a match! Do NOT burn paper in an indoor fireplace, stove, or wood oven. For burning paper, you will need to burn it outside in a fire pit. You will still need to tear or cut your documents into smaller pieces before burning them. Once the fire is out, be sure to break up the ashes and make sure there are no readable pieces of paper remaining. 

Soak them in Water: A simple disposal method is soaking them in water. This is another time-intensive method, requiring lots of patience, but it is very effective when done properly. Simply let your documents soak in a bucket of water for at least 24 hours. After they are done soaking, mix the paper-water mixture thoroughly to break up the paper. Ideally, use a paint mixer attachment with a drill. Mash the solution together into a paste and then dump the paste into the trash.

How to dispose of Prescription Pill Bottles:

When disposing of expired, unused, or empty pill bottles, it is very important to make sure patient information is not exposed. When you are getting ready to toss the empty bottle out, be sure to scratch out or remove the label that includes your name, date of birth, your healthcare provider’s name, and the medication type. In the wrong hands, someone with access to your personal health information could fill your prescription or even steal your identity. 

We all know those labels on prescription bottles are applied with, what has to be, the world’s strongest adhesive. Try to remove the label entirely first, and if that doesn’t work, try soaking the bottle in hot water. Soaking the bottle in hot water should help loosen the adhesive label where you can scratch it off.

Check with local hospitals, pharmacies, recycling centers, and even some police departments to see if they are holding a collection event in your area. These collection events are a way to safely dispose of medication bottles and unused medications. Typically, they will black out your information from the bottles and dispose of them. Some pharmacies may also accept old medication bottles and dispose of them for you when you refill your prescription.  

Some medications come in inhalers that are unsafe to throw out in the garbage. Check the disposal instructions that come with the medication. If nothing is listed, check with your pharmacist on the proper way to dispose of the inhaler when it is empty.

Most prescription bottles and lids are made of recyclable plastics, so once you get those pesky labels off they can be recycled!

How to dispose of Credit Cards, Debit Cards, & Identification Cards:

When it comes to disposing of expired credit, debit, and identification cards a few swipes with some hardy scissors just won’t cut it (see what we did there *wink). Okay, now that the dad joke is out of the way…

Scissors can do a good job of destroying an expired card but only if they are used correctly. Be sure to cut the card into various pieces, like A LOT of tiny pieces. Just like when shredding documents by hand, dispose of the various pieces into different trash bins so that there is a less likely chance of someone finding all of the pieces and putting them back together. That is one Humpty Dumpty that doesn’t need to be put back together again! If you are trying to dispose of a credit or debit card, make sure to cut through the signature on the card.

With the majority of debit and credit cards having a chip embedded, take some scissors or a hammer to the chip to make sure the chip cannot be accessed again. 

Another way to eliminate any chance of the card being accessed, but not the most eco-friendly method, is burning the card. The cards are made of plastic and can be melted down to ensure that there is no possibility of the information being accessed or recreated. 

If you need to dispose of confidential documents plus expired cards, some shredders will shred both. If you are going to buy a shredder, for this reason, be sure to purchase a shredder that is specially designed to handle cards and has a cross-cutting function. These types of shredders are going to be a little more expensive so shop around and make sure the purchase will fit into your budget!

When it comes to protecting your personal information, online or offline, it is important that you keep informed about your information and best practices on keeping it safe!

If you are looking to cut down on your paper mail and paper waste, check into the digital delivery options provided by your utility companies and other businesses and organizations you currently receive paper mail from.

If you are an ēCO member, check out all of the eServices we provide to you HERE!

Plus, we broke down what the service is, how it benefits you, and where you can access it HERE!


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