How to Securely Dispose of Sensitive Documents

by September 13, 2010 09/13/10
Burn Bag

You may be asking yourself about the title of this article, is there really a way to securely dispose of sensitive documents?

As we’ve talked in length on ways you can protect your digital world, for the next few weeks we’ll be focusing on your physical world and ways you can protect yourself. While we say “physical,” we’ll really be addressing personal security.

Today we’ll be looking at some of the most common forms of disposal for sensitive documents and offering some suggestions that either may have not occurred to you, or will hopefully be a refresher on how to properly dispose of these documents.

Sensitive Documents

Before we address the most common methods of disposing of sensitive documents, let’s first define what sensitive documents are and why we should be concerned with properly disposing of them.

Most people would define their sensitive documents as anything containing account numbers, social security numbers, private correspondence, bank statements, bills, medical info, legal info, passwords, etc. We’d like you to think further and consider including anything with your signature, pre-approved credit card offers and even the envelopes that come with all these documents mentioned.

Why the envelopes? This raises the more important question to this whole article, which is why do you need to securely dispose of sensitive documents at all? The answer is two words, identity theft. Those responsible for inflicting such damage to hard working individuals like yourselves, can obtain your information through a number of sources, but today we’ll be helping you take away one of their biggest assets. Your trash.

Dumpster Diving

Back to those envelopes. It’s been shown time and time again that identity thieves thrive off of dumpster diving. It’s one of the most basic forms of identity theft that’s still used today and for a good reason, it’s highly effective. Just take a second to close your eyes and think about what you throw out in the trash.

Let us help you out. From your trash people can gather who your friends are, who your financial institution is, who your service providers are, where you like to shop, what you buy from the store, what your kids names are and even who their friends are. The list goes on. Those envelopes we’re talking about can lead identity thieves to all this information. Return address and logos from the companies you do business with can be just as dangerous as the bills themselves.

Believe it or not, dumpster diving isn’t a crime if the trash is in a public place. This includes curbs, apartment dumpsters and anywhere it’s in public view. Where it becomes a crime is when your trash is concealed, like on the side of your house in your trash cans.

One last thing to mention is boxes from expensive items, don’t invite trouble into your home by leaving these casually on your curb. At the very least break these down to make them indistinguishable to would-be thieves driving by. Why publish what you bought last weekend by leaving the boxes out on the curb?

Additional Stopgap

Putting it into simple terms, you only have one way in which your non-digital sensitive documents reach you and leave you. The mailbox and the trash can.

As we’ve already addressed the trash, let’s look at your incoming sensitive mail really quick. While stealing mail is a federal crime, identity theft is too. Unfortunately just the simple notion of it being a felony isn’t enough to deter a thief to begin with. One of the best purchases you can make to protect yourself from this kind of theft is a locking mailbox insert. We had an article on locking mailbox inserts awhile back, be sure to check it out for further information.

Identity theft is a huge topic and one we’ll be covering in future articles, but suffice to say that if you can eliminate the variable of protecting your incoming and outgoing sensitive documents you’ll be leaps ahead of most of the many people that are victimized every day.

Disposal by Shredding

By far the most common method of disposing of your sensitive documents is shredding. Hopefully everyone is aware of the different kinds of shredders available on the market, and which you should definitely not choose (strip-cut). Since we’re mostly addressing home shredding, we’ll be discussing the most common commercially available shredders and what their capabilities are.

Before we get into the types of shredders, let’s go over the current security levels for shredding:

  • Security Level 1 (for shredding general internal documents): Strip-Cut – 3/8” or Cross-Cut – between 3/8” x 1-1/2” and 3/8” x 3-1/8”
  • Security Level 2 (for shredding sensitive internal documents): Strip-Cut – 1/8” or 1/4″
  • Security Level 3 (for shredding confidential documents): Strip-Cut – 1/16″ or Cross-Cut – 1/4” x 1/8”
  • Security Level 4 (for shredding secret documents): Cross-Cut – 1/16 x 5/8″
  • Security Level 5 (for shredding of top secret documents – DOD approved): Cross-Cut – 1/32” x 1/2”
  • Security Level 6 (for shredding of top secret documents – NSA/CSS approved): Cross-Cut 1mm x 5mm (approx. 1/26″ x 1/5″)

Most office supply stores don’t list shredders by their respective security levels, but most list the dimensions of the cut in the product details. It’s suffice to say that Strip-Cut is definitely not the way to go, and can lead to your sensitive documents being reconstructed.

ShredderTypically there are three classification levels for shredders that you’ll see commercially available, Strip-Cut, Cross-Cut and Micro-Cut. Strip-Cut and Cross-Cut are fairly on the money in terms of the security levels above, and Micro-Cut is around a level 3-4. Just note the cut size of any shredder you’re buying and compare it to the above security levels for what is best for you. We’d recommend nothing less than Security Level 4 (with the capability of shredding CDs) to ensure that would-be identity thieves are going to have a hell of a time reconstructing your documents.

Some government shredders in the Security Level 5-6 range are called disintegrators, which is a term used to describe very large machines capable of generating a top secret level particulate from just about anything. This includes hard drives, cell phones, microfilm etc.

Reconstruction

The reconstruction of sensitive documentation has been around as long as shredders have. According to a fantastic NY Time article that everyone should read, reconstruction was first brought to light during the 1979 US Embassy takeover in Tehran. The Iranians elicited the help of local carpet weavers to reconstruct sensitive documents, which were sold on the streets of Tehran as a testament to US imperialism.

Just know that with some time and even the help of computer programs like Unshredder, there isn’t much reassurance that your documents will stay shredded.

Disposal by Burning

While shredding can be an effective way to deconstruct your sensitive documents, even that must be put on the curb for anyone to pick up. To totally and securely dispose of these documents you’ll need a Burn Bag. The Government uses Burn Bags for the collection of classified materials that are to be destroyed.

A Burn Bag isn’t some magical bag that bursts into flames on command to erase your documents, it’s simply a bag which is easily identifiable that you can continually deposit your to-be-destroyed information into throughout the day. Then once the day, or however long you’re waiting, the bag gets incinerated. If you’re waiting multiple days in between incinerating Burn Bags, you’ll need to consider where you’re going to store it.

One of the best ways we’ve found to incinerate Burn Bags is to get one of those outdoor fire pits with the screened lids. It will keep your ashes from flying around everywhere while you’re cooking your documents. Of course when you’re done you’ll need to properly scatter the ashes.

Burn Bag 03Burn Bags can even be used in conjunction with a shredder, as many documents stacked in a pile will not fully burn. The absence of oxygen on the interior pages of a book or large stack of documents acts as insulation and will not allow a complete burn. You’ll wind up with plenty of unburned material and have to repeat the process all over again.

The Burn Bags that the Government uses feature red and white diagonal stripes that makes them easily identifiable and harder to confuse with other trash. We’ve actually been able to source Government Issue Burn Bags and WILL have them for sale in our Store by later today!

You may have remembered seeing the photo above from Spy Game, which is the first movie we’ve seen to actually use a Burn Bag. In the movie, Robert Redford’s character uses the bag to store sensitive documents, not for burning, but to deceive fellow CIA personnel by hiding them in plain sight.

Notes

We hope you’ve enjoyed this look into securely disposing of sensitive documents and as mentioned earlier, we’ll be bringing you further articles on personal security in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

The resources we’ve put together here for you are deterrents to becoming a victim of identity theft, please pass this article you’ve just read on to you friends, family and loved ones and fight back!


Click here to view the photos on Flickr.


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shredding San Antonio
shredding San Antonio

In recent years, the cases of fraud such as identity theft are increasing. Thus, people should be more responsible in disposing their sensitive documents. These tips you have provided are very useful. Thank you for sharing.

Shawn
Shawn

I like to soak the shredded paper in some water, it usually gets rid of most of the ink.

Jason
Jason

Another solution is making use of a document destruction company. I've heard really good things about Confidential Records Management, Inc. (http://www.crmi-online.com/). Or you could always just shred it yourself. Then once you have many different documents mixed together just dispose of them in random chunks on different days. This increases the difficulty of reconstruction exponentially.

Jerry in Detroit
Jerry in Detroit

One sensitive document that people forget are computer hard drives. I remove mine and shoot 3 to 5 holes through the platters to make sure my data is dead.

Ryan
Ryan

We end up using any sensative mail to light the charcoal for the grill. works great and is a complete burn.

David Ward
David Ward

While waiting to burn or if you just dont feel like it, you can use laundry blueing(dry cleaners use it) just dump a bottle or two of that on your documents or shreddings rendering them unreadable and anyone who touches them stains their hands.

W.Herndon
W.Herndon

A 55 gallon drum works great as a "burn barrel". Just cut around 3 or 4 holes about an inch from the bottom. That should give you some great air flow.

Aaron
Aaron

I'll admit to not shredding my receipts, however, I do have a disposal technique that is pretty secure. I have small children. As in still wearing diapers small children. Their more "fragrant" diapers go in a separate can outside the house. Receipts and anything else I don't feel like shredding but don't want in open trash go in the same can.

Seems to work pretty well for me.

Aaron
Aaron

I'll admit to not shredding my receipts, however, I do have a disposal technique that is pretty secure. I have small children. As in still wearing diapers small children. Their more "fragrant" diapers go in a separate can outside the house. Receipts and anything else I don't feel like shredding but don't want in open trash go in the same can. Seems to work pretty well for me.

John W
John W

Word from the wise, Shred half a dozen or so sheets at a time, then immediately flush the shreddings down the toilet, repeat every half a dozen or so to avoid clogging the toilet. If your staying at a hotel this will only arouse suspicion.

Christian Nadeau
Christian Nadeau

Good article. My parents have been using our shredder (cross-cut) for years for the address portions of mail and whatever else we want destroyed. Once the bin is full we bag it up and bring it to my grandfather who burns it in his wood furnace. After that the ash is used as fertilizer in my grandmother's garden and then we get some of the veggies once they're ripe.

Quite often I've thought about how easy it would be for somebody to just take our mail but I never though of getting a lockable insert. I'll have to persuasively insist we get one.

On the point of receipts in the car, all our receipts come straight in the house with us. However, I would think that if somebody is going to break into your car they would rather go for the registration so they have your name on the registration and insurance cards

Christian Nadeau
Christian Nadeau

Good article. My parents have been using our shredder (cross-cut) for years for the address portions of mail and whatever else we want destroyed. Once the bin is full we bag it up and bring it to my grandfather who burns it in his wood furnace. After that the ash is used as fertilizer in my grandmother's garden and then we get some of the veggies once they're ripe. Quite often I've thought about how easy it would be for somebody to just take our mail but I never though of getting a lockable insert. I'll have to persuasively insist we get one. On the point of receipts in the car, all our receipts come straight in the house with us. However, I would think that if somebody is going to break into your car they would rather go for the registration so they have your name on the registration and insurance cards

Chris
Chris

poor mans Incinerator. use forced air to add oxygen to the fire. hair drier, small battery powered air mattress inflater.. I use the air mattress inflater myself. It really helps to get the fire roaring. just be careful you don't melt your grill or fire pit

ryno
ryno

Another great article everybody should have the knowledge of. Spreading it around for the masses.

Connor
Connor

Haha, I think it's awesome/hilarious you'll now be selling government issue burn bags. Well done Bryan.

Lyne
Lyne

Nicely done! I like the fact that you suggest burning as the safest method. As an ex member of the fraud department for a credit reporting agency, I've heard lots of ways they steal your ID. Sometimes they don't just steal your mail, they steal your mailbox. ALot of people also keep lotsa stuff in their cars, like receipts and credit/debit cards. There are lots of stuff you can do to avoid being taken advantage of, and more to be done after it happens to you.

CENTCOMSurvivor
CENTCOMSurvivor

When I was in Bosnia they had a burn "tower" at Tuzla Air Base. I guess they didn't have a shredder yet as they were burning full sized documents and half of the papers were blowing out all over the place.

One misconception (at least in Florida) is once the mail is delivered to your mailbox its not a federal crime if its stolen. If mail is taken prior to being delivered, then its federal.

Great article!

CENTCOMSurvivor
CENTCOMSurvivor

When I was in Bosnia they had a burn "tower" at Tuzla Air Base. I guess they didn't have a shredder yet as they were burning full sized documents and half of the papers were blowing out all over the place. One misconception (at least in Florida) is once the mail is delivered to your mailbox its not a federal crime if its stolen. If mail is taken prior to being delivered, then its federal. Great article!

Blade Staker
Blade Staker

Very good story or review! I wish my Deputy Chief would look at this.

jon
jon

I prefer cleaning disks using a program such as eraser (http://eraser.heidi.ie/) to get rid of anything I don't want read (mostly old financial bits)

there's also a free program available that will boot from a keydrive, allowing you to wipe absolutely everything on the harddrive (including windows)

jon
jon

I prefer cleaning disks using a program such as eraser (http://eraser.heidi.ie/) to get rid of anything I don't want read (mostly old financial bits) there's also a free program available that will boot from a keydrive, allowing you to wipe absolutely everything on the harddrive (including windows)

Anon
Anon

As I learned in the cyber-forensics class I took, even a shredded hard drive can have the data recovered. There are devices, and I can only imagine the price, that are capable of reading the fragments of the hard disks, and software that can piece the data back together. Naturally, the time it takes makes it HIGHLY impractical for general use, and the cost is astronomical.

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