February 27, 2015

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How Long to Keep Documents (and which you should destroy)

Even though we’re inching ever closer toward a paperless world — online financial statements, Internet-only banks and direct deposit paychecks are just a sampling — most people still have paper documents accumulating in their file cabinets.

Maybe you think those papers will come in handy at some point, like if you face an audit or financial review. But be assured that such incidents are fairly rare. And in most cases, the information is being stored electronically and your documents are just backup copies that are taking up space — or worse, presenting an opportunity for an identity thief if you experience a break-in.

How Long to Keep Documents?

How do you know which documents to ditch and which to save? Here are some common items that you should consider shredding:

  • Anything that shows your signature. Identity thieves can use these receipts and papers to forge other documents, especially any bank checks or credit card offers that might have gotten tossed without shredding.
  • Old credit cards and driver’s licenses. Even if these items have expired, they still provide plenty of information about you and can be used to obtain new credit card applications. Don’t just cut up these items; make sure to destroy them through shredding.
  • Unneeded medical documents. One of the fastest-growing forms of identity theft is medical fraud; victims often don’t learn they’ve been hit until they get turned down for procedures or reimbursement because a thief has hit a spending cap. Medical records can contain a wealth of data, from Social Security numbers and insurance policy codes to previous addresses and prescription numbers. Destroy what you don’t need, including any benefit explanations from your insurer.
  • Documents that list passwords or PIN numbers. Although it can be useful to have this information stored somewhere, it’s much better to use an electronic password manager than to keep that data in your unprotected home files.
  • Year-end summaries that are available in digital versions. Unless you need this information for your taxes or find it useful to keep a paper copy, statements that are already checked for accuracy can be shredded. Double-check that a digital version exists first, because then it can be printed again if necessary.

For additional security, consider spring cleaning for your finances and take care of those  tax returns, bank statements, bills and paycheck stubs. And if you don’t have a shredder yet for destroying all that info, get our guide on how to choose a shredder.

In general, keep in mind that most printers (even inexpensive ones) have a scan feature, so you can keep an electronic version of a document instead of a paper copy. And of course, be sure to password-protect all your digital files, if you choose that route.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Dvortygirl.

Heidi Daitch

Chief Strategy Officer at IdentityForce
Heidi is a busy working mom who juggles many of the same responsibilities and challenges at home and at work - a long list of things to do and not enough time to do everything. With so little time, Heidi tries hard to find simple, but effective strategies to save time for what’s really important – spending time with her family.

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