Do yourself a favor this weekend.
Separate from the rest of your trash all the mail you routinely throw away.
The mortgage statements, credit card statements, car insurance renewals, car payment notifications, utility bills, reports on investments, bank statements, pre-approved credit cards, health insurance claims, receipts for packages, tax documents, all that stuff.
Just put it in a separate bin and let it accumulate. Then after a week or two, go back and sort through it all.
You will be stunned by the amount of detailed personal and financial information — including account numbers and other identifying data — that most of us casually make available to thieves just by tossing these envelopes and papers in the trash or recycling bin.
Remember the days when you bought something at the store with a credit card and the clerks asked if you wanted them to tear up your carbons? In reality, we're not very far removed from those days.
While many of us feel like we've switched our lives completely over to the conveniences of 21st century technology, we also still leave an extraordinary paper trail, as you'll find out when you do the discarded-mail experiment.
No hacking wizardry is required to get your credit card or medical information. All it takes is someone willing to sort the old-fashioned way through your garbage pail or a Dumpster or the mail container at the local recycling center to find out enough about you to steal your identity and your money, and to wreak havoc in your life.
This week, the state attorney general's office, AARP, local governments and officials in 39 other states are participating in "Shred Fest 2016." The event allows people to shred important documents for free at specific locations.
But most importantly, it serves as a reminder to us all to take steps to protect our own identities by securing and properly destroying our paper documentation.
According to AARP, more than 13.1 million Americans were victimized by identity fraud in 2013. That's over 4 percent of us. It doesn't sound like a lot. But in a community of just 10,000 residents, that's 400 people a year. Last year, New Yorkers filed 100,000 complaints with the Federal Trade Commission, many of them over identity theft.
With so much at stake, it might be wise to invest in a paper-shredder. You can buy a basic cross-cut shredder, which turns your documents into confetti, from a department store for around $25. Or for about $50 on up, you might step up to a micro-cut shredder, which turns paper into much smaller confetti. If you can, avoid the ones that cut the paper into strips. Thieves can easily read them or piece them back together.
Now is as good a time as any to remind ourselves how easy it is for thieves to steal our personal information, how easy we make it for them. and how easy it is to prevent.
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