How to safely, securely destroy a credit card: 6 tips
With fraud on the rise, a single scissor snip won't cut it anymore
In a world of escalating identity theft, one man's trash is another man's excuse to help himself to a new line of credit.
Taking a few half-hearted swipes with the scissors to your old credit cards just won't cut it anymore. Dumpster divers intent on looking for account numbers do not need much -- experts say even shredded cards can be pieced together by an earnest thief.
"Anything you put out on the street, you're saying, 'Have at it,'" said Jim Stickley, author of "The Truth About Identity Theft" and a security expert who has done more than his share of picking through trash to identify security breaches for various corporate clientele.
Much of the identity theft that touched nearly 10 million Americans last year is preventable by a few simple measures that take less than a minute of your time. Here are six tips for doing it right.
1. Properly cut up your credit cards
Scissors can do a fine job of destroying a credit card -- provided that you use them correctly. After suffering from several cases of both credit card and identity fraud, blogger Jim Wang of Bargaineering.com developed his own system for cutting his cards that involves slicing each set of four numbers into six pieces (see the "How to destroy a credit card video" for a demonstration). Make sure you also cut through your signature and the on the card.
2. Shredding your cards and documents
Shredders can also do the trick -- but be sure your shredder is specially designed to handle credit cards and has a cross-cutting function. These are typically twice the price of a normal shredder but less than $100 -- worth the price to protect your credit.
|VIDEO: How to cut up a credit card
Cynthia J. Drake demonstrates her mad skills with her "crime-fighting shears."
3. Be sure to destroy magnetic stripes and chips
Wang advises that people take an extra step to deactivate the card's magnetic stripe and, if present, its RFID chip. To scamble the data in the magnetic stripe, run a very strong magnet along the stripe on the back of the card. Apply scissors or a hammer to the chip embedded in the card, since "all the information stored on the card is also stored on the magnetic stripe and the chip itself," he said. This takes just a few extra seconds.
4. Trash tip: Bag the pieces separately
Another step you can take to prevent curbside identity theft is to deposit the pieces of your destroyed credit cards in different trashcans around your house. The idea is that some receptacles are emptied more frequently than others, so if half of your destroyed credit card goes to the curb with the kitchen trash one week, the other half will go out with your office trash another week. This makes it nearly impossible for a thief to piece together your entire account number.
5. The recycling myth: It's not safer than trash
It's an unexplainable yet prevalent myth that recycling bins are somehow safer than trash bins for credit cards, statements and other sensitive documents, Stickley said. They are not. At a recycling center, materials pass through a conveyor belt and human employees manually pick through items to make sure that only recyclable materials get through. Stickley said that confidential information could easily be taken off the conveyor belt by someone who's looking for it. "Recycling does not mean safer," he said.
If you want to recycle an item containing your account information, be sure to shred it first -- preferably with a cross-cut shredder, and follow the steps for bagging the pieces separately for maximum security.
|FIRE: Works every time
While not kind ecologically, using fire to destroy a card works every time.
6. Fire: The foolproof method
Of course, one way to completely eliminate any chance of credit card or identity theft is to incinerate all credit card-related documentation. Though it might not be the most earth-friendly activity (see the related story on your credit card's carbon footprint), credit cards can be melted down, along with credit card statements, applications and blank checks from credit card companies. "We use our bills for kindling -- all our bills go into a bag right next to our fireplace," Stickley said.
With average identity fraud losses hovering around $5,000 per person, taking a minute to destroy your credit cards and sensitive documents is a no-brainer. Turns out that if you get creative with your methods, it can actually be pretty fun, too.
See related: Consumers gain right to opt out of credit card rate increases, How to cancel a credit card, Credit card video: Cutting up your card the right way, How magnets can ruin a credit card, Anatomy of a credit card
Updated: November 16, 2009