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How Identity Thieves Turn Your Trash Into Gold

Written By Gary S. Williams, CFP®, CRPC®, AIF® February 5, 2019

We despise it, we ignore it, and sometimes we even respond to it. But think twice before you throw it away. I’m talking about junk mail and it can become a map of your life that leads a thief right to your bank account. Those envelopes you flip into the trash as having no value hold lots of value to identity thieves and they are not too proud to dig through your trash to get what they want.

Jim Stickley, security expert and author of The Truth About Identity Theft, has first-hand knowledge of what ID thieves are looking for. He has personally sifted through mail his clients threw in the trash to illustrate how easily he can gain sensitive information—sometimes enough to open accounts or get health insurance using only information his client throws away (of course, he doesn’t use the information. He does this to show his clients how easy it is). One of his clients was a large financial organization that was concerned about whether its managers could be vulnerable to identity theft that would allow access to the organization. Stickly said, “So each afternoon I waited in the parking lot and watched members of the management team get into their vehicle. Then I followed them home. Within a couple of weeks, I had each of their home addresses. Since I had no permission to break into their homes and poke through their personal belongings, I opted for the next best thing: their garbage.”

From there, Stickly was able to use information he gained from the managers’ utility bills to call the managers and pose as a person from the utility to “update their accounts.” In this way, he gained even more information directly from the managers themselves.

The way ID thieves get information from you is not as complicated, but also uses discarded mail as a starting point. An ID thief will go through your trash at the curb or wait until it makes its way to a dumpster and then dive in and start the search. All they need is some preliminary information. For example, with just a social security number and a pre-approved credit card offer, here’s how an account can be opened in your name without your knowledge:

  1. A thief digs through your trash and finds the pre-approved credit card offer.
  2. If the thief is also able to get your social security number from other things in the trash, the pre-approved application is filled out with your information but with a different address.
  3. The credit card is then sent to the address on the application and you will not realize there is a credit card out there with your name on it that’s attached to your credit report.

The damage ID theft can do doesn’t stop at bad credit. Identity thieves can use your information not only to open new accounts, but also to drain your bank accounts, obtain government documents, obtain a cell phone in your name that you will receive the bills for, charge utilities in your name, buy a car or home, refinance your home, or even file for bankruptcy.

Anyone can fall prey to ID theft so the best way to avoid it through dumpster diving is to keep your information out of the trash in the first place.

  • Shred all documents that have any personal information, including bank and credit card statements, utility bills, credit card offers, health insurance statements, tax forms, and other documents that contain your birthday and social security number.
  • Shred old credit cards or cut them up.
  • Peel labels off prescription bottles and shred them or cut them up before discarding the bottle.

Avoid sending sensitive information through the mail—it could end up in someone else’s trash.

More information on identity theft can be found at