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Shredded bliss: 5 steps to choosing the perfect paper shredder

Protect yourself from identity theft by shredding daily

By Michael Berg

Modern criminals may be stealing personal information electronically through sophisticated online data mining tools, but small-time crooks sorting through food wrappers and dirty diapers in the quest for discarded paperwork 'still lurk.

5 tips for choosing your perfect shredder

In fact, not shredding potentially sensitive documents before you dispose of them is almost like begging to become one of the Federal Trade Commission's estimated 9 million victims of identity theft in the United States every year. And with adequate shredders available for as low as $50, there's almost no excuse -- every household should have one.

John Sileo can attest to this firsthand. The identity protection expert and professional speaker had his identity stolen twice, and in one of those instances, a shredder could have made all the difference. "Shortly after buying a house, I put some mortgage documents out in the trash, and didn't think twice about it," he says. Later "a woman used my identity to buy herself a home. Eventually, she declared bankruptcy as me."

Sileo's nasty brushes with identity theft led him to write a book on the subject, "Stolen Lives: Identity Theft Prevention Made Simple," and launch thinklikeaspy.com. He's a firm proponent of shredders, and says in some cases people should have more than one.

"A problem I see is that people buy one and put it in their office, and then they'll open their mail or deal with their finances in a different place," he says. "If your shredder isn't within three to five seconds of where you are, statistics show that you're not going to use it. So the important thing is not that you get one shredder -- it's that you get enough shredders to make it very convenient."

OK, OK, so a shredder is a good idea. But go into an office-supply store or type "shredders" into Google, and you'll get quickly inundated with a slew of options. Sorting through all of them may seem intimidating, so to simplify, we recommend focusing on a few key factors.

Step No. 1: Choose your cut
The "cut" of a shredder refers to what happens when you put paper into the feeder of the machine. The four main variations are strip, cross, diamond and micro. View a slideshow of the four types of cuts below.

Strip shredders vertically slice a page into ribbons. Cross cut (sometimes called confetti cut) attack pages in multiple directions, resulting in particle sizes that are about one to two inches in length and around 0.15 inches in width. Diamond-cut shredders make diamond-shape clippings versus the rectangular clippings of a cross-cut machine. Finally, micro-cut machines hack pages into literally thousands of small pieces. "The scraps from a diamond or cross-cut shredder are approximately four times larger than a micro-cut particle," says Jennifer Rook, spokeswoman for Office Max.

Recommendation: To maximize peace of mind, pay the extra for a micro cut. Otherwise, a cross or confetti cut is a perfectly acceptable (and safe) choice. Meanwhile, don't be tempted by the cheaper strip-cut models, which are actually worse than not having a shredder at all because they alert a thief that you were trying to hide something potentially important. "It's useless," Sileo warns. "Someone with a strip scanner can reconstitute those documents in 10 seconds."

Step No. 2: Size up your available space
Once you have your cut preference in mind, the next most important consideration is where you'll put your shredder, says Eric Cayton, director and divisional merchandise manager in charge of shredder purchases for Staples. "You have to think about where it's going in your home or office," he says. "Are you going to keep it in the closet, the kitchen or under your desk?" The bin size will determine not only the overall size of your shredder, Cayton adds, but how often you'll need to empty it.

Recommendation: If space is not an issue, lean toward a larger bin capacity, as less emptying equals less hassle. If space is an issue, be sure to pull out a tape measure to assess your area -- and don't forget that you need room to open the bin too.

Step No. 3: Select your ideal sheet capacity
Lower-end models can only handle up to four sheets per pass. More expensive, industrial-strength shredders  can gobble 30 or more pages at a time. Most  options for home fall in the middle of that range, between 7 to 24 sheets. Take note: To feed junk mail in whole, you'll need a minimum capacity of 12 sheets, according to Rook. "When it comes to shredding junk mail or other types of bulk, it all depends on the thickness," she says. "This includes folded papers. One folded sheet of paper acts like three sheets when it's going through the shredder."

Recommendation: If choosing the cross-cut route, seek a model that can handle at least 12 to 18 sheets at a time, which provides the best balance of price and functionality. If you've chosen micro cut, expect to trade some sheet capacity for the benefit of mulching your documents into tiny pieces.

Another consideration related to sheet capacity is running time, which can range anywhere from two up to 30 minutes. "A higher capacity usually equates to the ability to shred longer at one sitting before the shredder needs to cool down," Cayton says. If you have a lot of documents to shred, choose a model with the longest running time in your price range.

Step No. 4: Paper and plastic
Some shredders are built to handle more than documents and the occasional staple. They can also mutilate your credit cards, and your recordable CDs and DVDs, too.

Recommendation: Everyone should have a shredder that can take credit cards at the minimum. Cross-cut or micro-cut models will do the job well. (Or, if you don't shred your cards, at least cut them up the correct way -- see how here.) If you copy information onto CDs or DVDs as a regular course of business, make sure the model you choose either has a special slot for CDs/DVDs on top, or that it at least lists an ability to shred them on its features listing. (If it's not listed, it's most likely not capable of the task.)

Step No. 5: Consider bonus features
There are some valuable bonus features on mid- to higher-end models, such as safety sensors that auto-stop the machine when a hand (or paw) gets too close and technology that helps alleviate frustrating paper jams. You'll also find some that boast a lower noise level -- while the average shredder can be about 70 decibels, advanced motor and gear design can drop that to around 60 decibels, according to Cayton.

Recommendation: If you have kids or pets in the house, a safety-stop mechanism is a must. Noise levels, meanwhile, are only a concern if you share an office or the shredder will be situated near a bedroom.

Need more shredding sustenance? Check out this slideshow showcasing the four major types of cuts today's shredders offer.

Cutting to the chase: Our quick picks
If four steps are about three too many in your mind, we have some shredder recommendations that can help you skip past the comparison shopping and head right to the checkout line.

If you believe in the wisdom of crowds, check out Staples' best-sellers:

Here are the popular sellers at Office Max:

Whether you choose one of these shredders or do your own comparison shopping, don't wait too long to make your purchase. As Sileo will tell you, the paper you toss in the trash today can turn into a costly nightmare tomorrow.

See related: Affluent are more often victims of ID theft, report shows, Credit card video: 6 tips to protect yourself from ID theft, How to check for, fix ID theft or fraud

Published: April 29, 2010


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