With the new and growing crime of identity theft, it makes sense to shred all sensitive business and personal documents, rather than simply put them out with the rubbish for collection. It is worth taking the trouble to investigate what kind of shredder best suits your needs.

Shredders are machines that chop up documents into strips or little pieces. One of the main reasons why you should consider investing in a shredder is the growing threat of identity theft.

Identity theft

As the press and insurance companies are only too keen to tell us, identity theft is on the rise, and now apparently affects 100,000 people a year. It is surprisingly easy for criminals to get hold of the personal details of another individual in order to commit the crime of 'identity fraud' - to use someone else's identity to acquire goods and services by deception, such as credit cards, store cards, bank accounts, loans, or mobile phone accounts. For the victims, the abuse of their identity is a shock, and can be financially very damaging; and they may find it difficult and time-consuming to prove their innocence and restore their credit rating. The criminals get hold of the personal details of their victims by a number of means, but one of the most common is by going through rubbish bins. This is where the shredder comes in.

Bin raiders

Surveys have shown that individuals and businesses are remarkably casual about what they put in their dustbins. Discarded documents include not only names, addresses and telephone numbers, but also details of bank accounts and credit cards, plus utilities bill, photographs and signatures, medical records, and photocopies of birth-certificates, driving licences and passports. Criminals may use these to apply for a credit card directly, or might use the details to contact their victims and - pretending to be their bank, for instance, and armed with a convincing knowledge of personal information about them - persuade them to give away vital confidential information, such as a pin number. There is an illicit market for confidential documents, and criminals will pay others to go through bins on their behalf. It is not actually a crime to go through someone else's rubbish - only to use items recovered fraudulently. So beware: you are taking a risk if you bin any document that contains much more than your name and address - and evidence suggests that some 85 per cent of householders throw out documents that could be useful to criminals. Chuck them out, by all means. But shred them first!

Criteria for choosing a shredder

There are many sorts of shredder on the market, ranging from the desk-top, manually-operated kind costing a few pounds, to powerful electrical shredders for large offices, costing hundreds of pounds. You have to assess your needs, and this boils down to two main criteria:

  • the level of security required;
  • the volume of shredding you want to do.

To shred personal documents for the sake of security, most people will be looking at an electrically-driven 'personal shredder' costing around £50. More sophisticated machines, capable of handling a higher volume of documents, and chopping them finer, will cost proportionately more.

Security: strip-cut or cross-cut?

Shredders are armed with rotating cutters set on a long roller. Some cut in strips, typically 6.3mm wide or 3.9mm wide. Needless to say, the narrower the strip, the more difficult it will be for the fraudster to piece together a document again. Better still, buy a shredder that has interlacing blades that deliver a cross-cut - cutting up a document in two directions to produce small, chopped-up segments. No only does this make the shreds very much harder to piece together; it also has the advantage of making the waste more compact.

There is a security scale for shredders that is widely used by manufacturers and providers. It ranges from Level 1 (low-security, good enough for internal office documents etc) to Level 6 (top secret government and commercial documents). For personal security, to beat the bin-raider, you should go for Level 3 (for confidential documents) or Level 4 (for secret documents).

Volume: number of 'passes'

The next thing to consider is how much you want to use the shredder. The cheaper electrical shredders have smallish motors that can handle only a certain number of sheets at a time (say 5-7 sheets of standard A4 80gsm paper). In addition, they will overheat after a given number of 'passes' (the times that you put your batches of 5-7 sheets through), unless you give it a rest for about 15 minutes - otherwise the machine will automatically cut out, or burn out. Typically, a light-use personal shredder might allow 20-50 passes a day. These restrictions are usually fine for the average amount of personal shredding. But if you want to shred more than this, then you will need to pay more for a more powerful machine.

Dos and don'ts

  • Most shredders can handle the odd metal staple, but some will be damaged by paperclips. Others are much stronger, and can also shred credit cards and CDs. Check the manufacturer's specifications for details.
  • An electrical shredder is a powerful machine. When not in use, switch it off and unplug it, especially if there are children around.
  • Keep ties and dangling jewellery well clear of a shredder.
  • Know your shredder. Know where the reverse switch and the emergency stop button are located.
  • Do not exceed the manufacturer's sheet capacity or run time, or you will risk clogging up the cutter and burning out the motor.

Compost it

You don't have to put your shredded documents in your rubbish bin. If you have a garden compost bin, put them in there! Garden composters can handle shredded paper, provided that you do not put in too much at once, and that you layer it with vegetable scraps and garden clippings. If you do this, you can buy a shredder of a lower security level (e.g. 6.3mm strips). And you end up with valuable garden compost. And you can rest assured that any identity thief who wants to go that far is probably too deranged to be effective.

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