A Naval Support Activity Mid-South Sailor takes a moment to decide which credit card to use
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class LaTunya Howard / Public Domain

Items You Should Never Throw in the Trash

Identity theft is a crime where a thief takes your personally identifying information without your permission and uses it illicitly. Generally, identity thieves use your name to commit fraud and/or other crimes which shifts the blame to you rather than point evidence in their direction.

Once a thief gains information, he or she often applies for credit cards, opens utility accounts, obtains employment, rents apartments or uses your name to incur other types of debt; these notations end up on your credit report. Often a scammer won't make the payments and you'll end up being contacted by debt collectors looking for their money. In extenuating circumstances, law agencies may even come knocking on a victim's door thinking he or she committed a crime.

Identity thieves will use many methods in order to obtain the personally identifying information they need in order to assume your identity. While many current techniques are done electronically, good old-fashioned dumpster diving is still a way thieves will use to snatch up your information.

In this respect, a trash can is a treasure chest for identity thieves. Despite increased use of electronic transactions, think of all the sensitive information which still transpires on paper nowadays, eventually ending up in a trash can, and all the possible ways thieves could use this information.

There are many types of discarded paper thieves would love to get their hands on:

Bank Statements

Bank statements not only give thieves your name, address and other valuable information, they also hand criminals the entry to your financial accounts. A thief can get an I.D. made up in your name and strut into a branch of your bank and empty your account. Or, if they can secure online access to your account by providing 'verifiable' information which they could have obtained in your trash, it is even easier to steal your money.  

Credit Card Statements

Credit card statements are very valuable. Thieves can not only pilfer your personal and account information, but also study your spending habits as well. If they charge up your account at stores you are apt to shop at, this will likely not flag anything suspicious.

Credit card companies do actively monitor shopping habits to try and prevent fraud, however if a thief follows your patterns, this is likely to less arouse suspicion. If you do not actively watch your spending, you might not even notice right away yourself since the bill will list your normal stores.

Dumpster diving in Koreatown, Los Angeles, California
Credit: Jim Fischer from Portland, Oregon/ Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic with Attribution

Dumpster diving is a valuable pastime for identity thieves.

Utility Bills

Utility bills offer thieves a means to gain credit or commit other types of fraud in your name. Never keep these receipts any longer than you need to and be sure to destroy them completely when you do dispose of them.

Identification Cards

Any form of I.D. that has expired should be destroyed. If the shredder cannot handle a thick card (including credit cards along with IDs), be sure and cut the I.D. document into several small pieces with scissors. I.D. cards can be the gateway to obtaining replacement social security cards, passports or other official documents and/or information.


Always shred credit card solicitations or anything that contains your medical information. These forms or documents often contain valuable tidbits for ID thieves. Additionally, envelopes that carry your name and address is also best shredded, along with any documents with phone numbers or emails listed. Consider who you receive snail mail from either routinely or not, even a return address can provide ID thieves with plenty of clues to follow-up on and go "phishing".  It is also a good idea to shred any personal correspondences as well. 

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Problems Associated with Dumpster Diving

Problems associated with identity theft include obstacles when you try to get a loan, a crime being committed in your name, financial theft from your accounts, and even a ruined reputation. For instance, if your name is soiled by the person being a bad tenant or a poor employee, this will reflect on you, not them. Many people often do not even know their identity was stolen until long after the fact.

Your trash can give thieves with a gold mine of information. For years criminals have used this method of theft to steal identities and, even in the digital age, is still a valued technique thieves use. Not only the petty thief, but for the big crime rings too, many of which become multi-million dollar scams.

Protect Yourself

To better protect yourself, monitor your paper and other tangible items, and be sure and shred these items carefully. The Washington State Attorney General's Office offers a comprehensive list of all the items you should routinely shred rather than simply toss in the trash.  

Use a quality shredder where it is difficult for thieves to piece together any information that might be found in the trash.  Unfortunately, you can't control what businesses or agencies do with your information, however you can control what you do. As privacy awareness increases and the more everyone participates, the less chance a dumpster diver can turn your trash into cash.