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Dumpster Diving: Identity Theft 101

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Dumpster Diving Dangers

So many ways exist for thieves to grab your identity, it’s hard to believe sometimes that the ‘old-fashioned’ methods are still some of the most popular. For example, you mail box and your trash are two of the greatest risks to your identity. Mail scams happen all the time.

As the old saying goes, ’One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ And it’s so very true. One of the most notorious cases of identity theft prosecuted was a case of dumpster diving. Dumpster diving is when someone goes looking through other people’s trash for items that can be used or sold.

In most cases, a dumpster diver is looking for items: gently used clothing, knick-knacks, CDs, movies, or anything else that can be recycled, reused, or sold to someone else. People throw away perfectly good stuff all the time. If it’s in the trash and it’s still good, why shouldn’t someone get some use out of it, right?

That’s a great theory, except for one small loophole. People also throw away a lot of paper. In fact, the average individual throws away about 860 lbs of paper a year; paper that’s often printed with personal information like account numbers, dates of birth, and Social Security Numbers.

Identity Theft Waiting to Happen

It’s in trash that Stephen Massey, the leader of one of the most notorious identity theft rings to date, found his niche. Massey, a meth addict and petty criminal, stumbled on the idea of stealing identities for profit while he was dumpster diving to support his meth habit. In a dump, completely unprotected, he came across barrels of recycled paper that included names, birth dates, Social Security Numbers, and addresses. Everything you need to steal an identity.

That was back in late 90s, and Massey and his partner-in-crime were sentenced to prison in 2000. Massey received a two year prison sentence; his partner received one year. Since then, how corporate paper is handled has changed a little. Legislation like the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 or the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act have forced some organizations to be more responsible about the storage and disposal of personal information.

Of course, changing the way that corporations handle your information is helpful, but what about the way you handle your own information? Many people don’t even think about the junk mail they toss in the trash, the old bank statements, or even personal correspondence. Every piece of paper that has information about you on it can put you at risk.

Consider pre-approved credit card and mortgage loans, for example. On average, Americans receive four or more of these per week. And most of those people just toss them in the trash. They may not ever even open them up.

Identity thieves can then come behind you, pull the approvals out of the trash along with the birthday card you received from Aunt Tessie, a copy of your bank statement or a credit card statement, and have nearly all of the information they need about you. It really is that simple.

It’s Not Illegal

What surprises most victims of dumpster diving is that the crime isn’t really a crime if the trash is left in a public place. For example, put a bag of trash out on the curb and anyone has the right to pick it up and carry it away. Even public dumpsters, like those found in apartment complexes aren’t off limits.

Dumpster diving becomes a crime when someone steals trash that is considered to be concealed. For example, the trash can that you collect your trash bags in, back by the garage, is considered concealed. Thieves can’t help themselves to that trash without risking theft charges if caught.

Grab and Go Identities

To you, the idea of sifting through someone’s trash sounds simply disgusting. To an identity thief, it’s an ordeal worth going through. On average, a victim is worth about $31,000 dollars to a thief. Some may be worth less, others worth much more. But wouldn’t you be willing to sift through a little trash if you knew you would most likely find about $31,000?

Once a thief has your trash, it’s just a matter of separating your valuable information from everything else. Then the criminal takes that information and uses it to create new accounts, funnel money from existing accounts, and even to take over more personal aspect of your life. It’s much easier to do than you might imagine.

By the time you discover the theft, the damage is done. All that’s left to do is try to undo the damage. And that’s a task that can take as much as two years to accomplish, so it’s much easier to protect yourself from the start.

Protecting Your Identity

It’s scary to realize that everything that you throw away could put you at risk. You can protect yourself, though. And it’s easier than you think.

The best way to ensure that dumpster diving thieves don’t gather enough information about you to steal your identity is to shred every piece of paper that you throw away. Shredding something doesn’t meant to tear it into little pieces. It’s also not wise to use a straight-cut shredder.

Straight-cut shredders cut paper only length-wise. With enough time and patience, a dumpster diver and put the pieces of your document back together, much like putting a puzzle together. Your best protection is a cross-cut shredder. Cross cut shredders cut both length-wise and width-wise, creating confetti out of your personal information that is too difficult and time consuming for criminals to want to put it back together.

Dumpster diving is more a threat than you realize. It’s easy for criminals to get at your personal information if you just throw it away. So protect yourself. Shred everything.

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