All I Want for Christmas is an Industrial-Strength Paper Shredder

I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. The fear of God has been bred into me. My mail stacks up and my file cabinets are overflowing. I’m afraid to throw away even junk mail without shredding it first. Never in my early childhood dreams could I have imagined that my simple name and address would be of value, and not because I’m a celebrity and people are interested in coming to gawk, but because someone could want to become me, at least in the steal-my-identity financial sense.

I haven’t actually tracked how name and address results in five credit cards and a car lease, but I’ve heard the horror stories. Why I end up responsible baffles me. My friend could easily prove she wasn’t the woman receiving unemployment checks issued to her social security number in someone else’s name at a different address. Did that get her off the hook? No. Or the MasterCard account opened in her name by someone who wasn’t her, a suspected inside job at the issuing company. A lawyer simply told her that her best option to clear up her – uh, someone else’s – debt linked to her identity was to declare bankruptcy. She did and left the country. (For other truly romantic reasons, but still.)

So now I sit over a paper-eating machine begrudgingly shredding pieces of mail that should be of no interest to anyone. I waste time and energy – both mine and that of the electric kind – and at the end of it all, all I’ve succeeded in doing is theoretically protecting myself from some unknown thief. I willingly put locks on my door, but this other kind of protection I don’t understand. The territory I must guard is so vast and so invisible that I can’t imagine successfully defending it, at least not on my own.

I suspect someone else should be in charge of this.

Perhaps if the crime were more vigorously investigated and prosecuted the benefit of it would vanish. Perhaps if regular folks like me had a shred of protection from this practice we wouldn’t all have to buy shredders. If someone steals my car and crashes into a street-load of pedestrians, I’m not carted off to jail. If someone steals my identity and goes and buys that car, too bad. The debt is mine. Logic, please?

We now are offered identity theft insurance. Why should we pay for crimes perpetrated in our name but without our knowledge?

Recently a friend of mine was talking about cleaning out her files. With the average shredder disposing of six sheets at a time, she figured she could spend the next year shredding for protection. Her husband offered to burn the papers in their barbeque. I suggested the fireplace despite the fact that spring has arrived. Then we discussed whether she wouldn’t be adding to pollution from this mass burning. Endless shredding versus air pollution versus potential identity theft. Can we get an intervention here?

Some believe the shredding of junk mail is an exercise in over-caution, yet another friend of mine insists that is how her identity was snatched, which led her down the path of clearing her good name for months. When this happens one can only guess the origin of the thievery, so now we examine all our identifying documents and ask, “Could it be you? Could you betray me?”

Others say that they refuse to live in fear, and I was one of you until last year. I tossed my mail into the trash figuring the likelihood of a dumpster diver barreling to the bottom of a twelve-unit condo building’s garbage heap and poking around through rotting food and dirty disposable diapers was unlikely. But then I discovered that we could put mixed paper into our recycling bins, and being the God fearing environmentalist that I am (exaggeration noted), I started depositing papers and cereal boxes inside a tidy bin that smelled just fine. Suddenly I saw my papers as actually inviting theft, as if I’d placed them in an ornate and calligraphy-addressed envelope and sent them out to Mr. & Mrs. Identity Thief.

I bought a shredder.

It was fun for about twelve minutes. Commercial shredders fill up fast and require constant bag replacement. A financial statement ready for disposal requires two to three passes to reduce it to the six-sheet maximum. Sometimes I get cocky and feed in a few extra pages. When it shreds to a halt, I get to learn how to use the ‘Reverse’ setting, pulling my half-shredded identity from its clutches as if rescuing a treasured body part from the teeth of a shark. (Less blood, of course.)

I’ve made it through my recent mail, but my file cabinets are due for a purging. I honestly can’t face the task. One acquaintance suggested watching TV as I shred claiming it could be relaxing. At that moment I decided he wasn’t very bright. “Ah, the serenade of the shredder burying the dialogue of ‘Without a Trace.’” (Guilty pleasure revealed.)

Please, oh Federal Government, come up with a system to protect your citizens. Free us from endless shredding and endless guarding of who we are and where we live and where we bank and how we paid for last summer’s vacation. Let me run free through the wind, hair flowing behind me, carefree and spewing my personal data for all to hear. Let me shift my worries to something that betters the world, or better yet, you can go ahead and wipe out world problems while you’re at it. (A girl can dream.)

In lieu of the above, please deliver an industrial-strength shredder to our multi-car communal garage and set it conveniently to dump into the recycling bin. If it weren’t springtime, I’d ask Santa.


jaded said...

Illogical, thus an accurate representation of government in action. I've put in eighty hours this year shredding on behalf of in-laws. Over forty years of filing to be disposed. It's lot like using an egg cup to bail the water out of a sinking ski boat.

Girlplustwo said...

while i don't subscribe to this (or own a shredder) i do know you can sign up for a service. poof. they take it away.

something to consider, maybe...but again, it's a way to capitalize on our fears, so many not.

fringes said...

Great post, DZ. Your use of language feels very relaxed and I loved that the most. Great topic as well.

Anonymous said...

I don't recycle the junk mail, I bury it under our coffee grounds and all the other waste that we've got. But now I think I should buy a shredder because I didn't realize I'd be held responsible. Sometimes I marvel at the bubble I live in - utopian at that.

Anonymous said...

Because I am paranoid and have an only mildly annoying relationship with obsessive compulsive behavior, I love my shredder. It takes 12 sheets and does not have a bag. That said, I am pretty sure Staples has either "shredding days" or a "shredder service" where you can take your boxes and see them swiftly and permanently disposed of...They recycle old printer ink cartridges too...And take back things that you have opened and used and give you store credit. Yes, it's a monster, but it is my monster.

Rachel said...

Good rant on a scary subject. Have just stopped dumping mail in the recycling bin for the same reason and now burn it on the woodburner. How sad is that?

Veronica said...

What's worse is you can shred all you want but your name and address is in dozens of public records and databases, there for the taking.

My husband brought home an article from the Washington Post last night. It's on consumer rights related to identity theft. Article title is "States Offer Consumers New Tool to Thwart Identity Theft" by Brian Krebs. It's available online and specifically discusses California and the use of "credit freezes" to thwart unauthorized access to credit.

Anonymous said...

If you want to look at a site with just about every paper shredder ever made go to www.officezone.com/shred1.htm.

Emily said...

Amen. I just read about www.greendimes.com. They work to get your name of lists and plant a tree for you every month. All for only $36. Not bad in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I didn't realize it before But now I think I should buy a shredder.

Peter woodfellow said...

I just got a great shredder for my bday, i can do 10 pieces of paper at the same time, I run a small ICT shop and go through god know how many order forms etc.. in a day this has been a life saver :)