There are many high-tech methods for fraudsters to steal people's identities. They can hack a computer, they can phish for information via email or instant message, and they can even steal passwords with specially designed computer programs.
But there is still a very low-tech way they can get a consumer's personal information as well: Going through trash cans and dumpsters looking for financial documents that contain all kinds of information, like account information, balances and even Social Security numbers. According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, these identity thieves, who have earned the appropriate nickname "dumpster divers," will happily go through the trash looking for old bank statements.
This, one representative of the Better Business Bureau told the paper, is why no financial document should ever be thrown out unshredded. Identity thieves hit an estimated 8.1 million Americans last year, and were responsible for about $45 billion in losses.
But this shredding isn't just important for physical pieces of paper, the BBB told the newspaper. Consumers should never dispose of their old and unwanted computers with the hard drives still inside them, even if they think the computer doesn't work. These thieves make a living stealing other people's identities, and know all the tricks to get a non-operational hard drive or computer working again, granting them access to every bit of information on the person that threw it out. For this reason, all hard drives should be wiped clean and reformatted, or otherwise destroyed, before being disposed of.
The paper said the BBB recommends that consumers hold onto various personal financial records for at least one year (in the case of bank statements and canceled checks) and up to seven years (for any item that is in any way related to taxes and other IRS filings).
According to a report in the Columbia Basin (Washington) Herald, this type of crime isn't just limited to thieves scavenging their way through local dumpsters on trash day, they can also target consumers' cars. Many consumers leave old checkbook stubs, ledgers or other important financial documents in their vehicle. If a car is broken into for this purpose, consumers may be too preoccupied with the larger crime to notice a few check stubs missing, and the resulting identity theft can prove disastrous.