Elliott Greenblott | Fraud Watch: Are you a document pack rat?

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You likely realize that vulnerability to fraud increases with personal practices and behaviors in the digital world and in the less-technical "real" life. One of these is keeping unnecessary documents; It might open the door to fraud or identity theft.

Let's consider what is necessary to keep and what to toss. There are a number of critical documents that should not be discarded.

Keep: Birth certificates, Social Security cards, marriage licenses or divorce decrees, adoption papers, citizenship papers and death certificates. While all of these documents are replaceable, keeping copies can save time and effort if they are needed. Replacement can be a complicated process.

Temporary holds: Some documents only need to be kept for a limited time. Motor vehicle titles and home deeds should be held for as long as you own the property or vehicle. Other circumstantial items include disputed bills, which should be kept until the bill is resolved, and receipts for home improvements that might be needed when the property is sold and capital gains taxes are paid. You might also need to keep receipts related to insurance claims for a time specified by your insurance company.

Tax documents: Tax-related documents worth keeping include tax-related receipts and canceled checks, W-2s and receipts for tax deductions. The rule of thumb is to keep these for seven years, generally, the amount of time that covers IRS review.

Keep for one year: Some documents can be destroyed after one year. Pay stubs, bank statements and undisputed, paid medical bills fall into this category.

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Trash it: You might, at this point, look at your file drawer or bill box and say "Wow, I have a ton of papers remaining that were not mentioned." This is where the pack rat in you wants to close the file and say, "I'm done." But the reality is that all of the remaining items can be destroyed: sales receipts not related to warranties, ATM receipts, paid credit card bills that are not disputed, credit offers, canceled checks that are not tax-related, expired warranties. Consider this — many of these items, such as shopping receipts, have no value unless you plan to return items. Statements generated for monthly billing can be easily replaced or even retrieved online.

Sentimental keepers: There is, of course, one document category that might be nonnegotiable in the keep-or-toss battle; Things like the bill for the marriage proposal dinner, or a receipt from your first new car. In my case, it is the bill my parents paid at the hospital when I was born 71 years ago (It cost $246 and included a six-day hospital stay for my mother.)

If you follow these suggestions, you should have two piles: a small stack of "keepers" and a large one to throw away. Your discard pile includes documents with account numbers, addresses, names, Social Security numbers, income information and much more.

Tossing them in the recycle bin is not an option. The best practice is to shred these documents, and this can be accomplished in a few ways. You could go to a local office supply store that handles shredding. This might be easy, but at an average of $1 per pound, it can be pricey. It breaks down to as much as a penny per page. Consider buying a cross-cut or micro shredder selling for $60 to $100 (split the cost with neighbors or family and share the equipment). Reject a straight or strip cut shredder. There are also shredding events. Check with your bank, credit union or investment counselor. They have regular visits by commercial shredding trucks and might be willing to take documents as a service to customers.

Not sure if you really want to get rid of something? Use your cellphone to photograph items you might want to keep, then shred them. Save the items on an encrypted portable flash drive and ERASE THE PHOTOS FROM YOUR PHONE. With computer files, be sure to erase them, too, but still have your computer storage drive and access encrypted.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network. Reach Greenblott at egreenblott@aarp.org.


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