In an era when high-tech scammers are targeting your credit-card information, Social Security number, and other personal data, it's just as important not to be lax with your paper documents.
We've long recommended that you shred important documents before you dispose of them, especially if they contain vital personal information that identity thieves can use. And unless you want to spend the time dealing with the documents by hand or pay a company to do it for you, the most effective tool is a cross-cut shredder, which slices papers horizontally and vertically and turns your documents into small bits and pieces that are much more difficult to patch back together than the long, thin strips other shredders produce.
We tested 19 cross-cut shredders in two types. With a pull-out console model, you empty the device by pulling out a drawer that collects the shreds; with a wastepaper-basket shredder, you lift the shredder mechanism off of a basket that holds the shreds.
Our testers fed the shredders about 25,000 sheets of paper left over from a recent printer test. Half the paper was 20-pound stock, and the rest was thinner paper printed with color photographs. All the shredders met the manufacturer's claims about how many sheets you can feed at one time, and they all successfully handled credit cards. The shredders designed to deal with CDs, DVDs, paper clips, and staples capably shredded those items, too.
The four recommended models—one each from Black & Decker and GoEcoLife, and two from Staples—in our Ratings of shredders proved to be easy to operate, shredded paper faster than the others, had fewer paper jams, and required less frequent emptying. They were also among the most expensive units we tested, costing $150 to $270.
Here are some other points to consider when choosing a shredder.
If you have the room, consider one of our recommended models. They are 20 to 25 inches tall, which means that they can store more waste between emptying. You can also find desktop models, which have a smaller footprint. Keep in mind that this type might shred more slowly, and you might need to empty it more frequently than larger, more-expensive machines. One desktop model that we tested but which is discontinued easily handled credit cards, discs, and staples.
If you store your annual tax records or other important documents on data discs, make sure you choose a model that can handle them.
If you'll shred papers only occasionally, say when you sort through your monthly bills, consider a model with an "auto" button. This feature lets you keep the shredder at the ready, without the noisy motor running, until you insert papers and other items. You won't have to turn the shredder on and off as you work.
If you frequently shred large piles of paper, consider a model like the Swingline EX100-07 Stack and Shred ($225). It lets you stack up to 100 sheets on an interior shelf and then slowly shreds while you attend to other tasks.
Because you'll want to keep tabs on the shredded paper so that the bin doesn't get too full and possibly interfere with the shredding, look for a machine with a window for monitoring the shredded buildup. Some machines, including the GoEcoLife GXC120Ti ($200) and the Staples SPL-TXC10A ($100), lack a window but have an indicator light that lets you know when the drawer is full.
We didn't find serious safety hazards with any of the tested shredders during testing. All tested models are designed with a slat that should be too small for children's fingers to get caught. Note that wastepaper-basket shredders, which lack drawers, tended to be top-heavy, making them more prone to tipping over. Models with drawers were also easier to empty.
The best time to buy a shredder is from fall through spring tax season. That's when retailers sell the most shredders and often put them on sale. Also ask about a trade-in. Staples, for example, will give you $50 for an old shredder when you buy a new one, as long as the new one you're buying retails for $149.99 or more, even if it's on sale for less.
Read the owner's manual
Follow the instructions to prevent paper jams and other problems. For example on some models, when we inserted papers on an angle rather than straight in, the pages folded over. On others, when we inserted items not recommended in the owner's manual, such as unopened envelopes with glassine windows, the machines occasionally jammed or didn't shred properly. And when we slipped a credit card into the wrong slot on one shredder, the card was sliced into just three pieces, leaving the number potentially easy to read.
Also check the manual for directions on how often to clean and oil the shredder to improve its performance and help it last longer.
Finally, to ensure the greatest security and to thwart a truly dedicated paper pilferer, dispose of shredded materials over several trash-collection cycles.
Models are listed in alphabetical orders.
Pull-out console shredders:
Aurora C1210 ($90), Black & Decker CC1500 ($190), Fellowes 79Ci ($240), Fellowes P-12C ($90), GBC Style+ ($75), GoEcoLife GXC120Ti ($200), Royal HD1400MX ($90), Staples SPL-TXC22A ($270), and Swingline EX100-07 Stack and Shred ($225).
Aurora AS890C, ($40), Black & Decker BD-61 ($50), Black & Decker CC-800 ($60), Black & Decker VS600 iShred ($100), Fellowes P-8C ($60), Royal CX88 ($50), Staples SPL-TXC10A ($100), Staples SPL-TXC122A ($150), Staples SPL-TXC82A ($60), and Swingline EX10-05 ($100).
Shredding important papers can prevent a crook from obtaining your personal data and using it to drain your accounts or open new ones in your name. You don't have to shred every piece of paper you accumulate. Some documents don't contain anything an ID thief can use, says Paul Stephens, director of policy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. Below we've listed the documents you should shred, the ones you don't have to shred but might want to for extra security, and papers you can just toss without shredding.
• Monthly bills. Even if you bank online, also shred payment coupons, which might contain your full account number, even if the bill did not.
• Receipts or other papers that show your signature, which ID thieves could use to forge other documents.
• Employer pay stubs.
• Documents that contain account information, such as statements from your bank, credit-card companies, 401(k) administrator, and broker and other investment statements. Don't forget courtesy checks from your credit-card issuer or bank. Call that source and ask it to stop sending the checks.
• Anything that contains your Social Security number, including annual statements from the Social Security Administration. Don't forget old identification cards, including an expired driver's license.
• Expired credit cards, and prescreened credit-card offers and applications, even if they contain incorrect personal information. All can be used to obtain fake credit cards.
• Explanation-of-benefits forms from your medical insurer. They usually include your member ID number, which leaves you vulnerable to medical-ID theft. Also shred papers and labels with prescription numbers on them.
• Tax forms and tax-related documents more than seven years old.
• Any documents that list a password or PIN, and anything else with personal information that you wouldn't want a stranger to see.
• All mail from your financial institution, including change-of-terms notices. Even documents that don't have account information can tell fraudsters a little more about you than you might want them to know.
• Documents from companies you've done business with recently, including those from recent travel. Thieves could call you masquerading as a representative from one of those businesses to try to trick you into disclosing personal information.
Toss without shredding:
• Mail that contains only your name and address, if that's public information and easy to find elsewhere. That includes items such as catalogs or flyers that aren't from a financial institution.
• Junk mail addressed to "Resident" or "Occupant."
On an everyday basis, good record-keeping at home makes it easier to pay bills on time, find receipts, and reduce tax-time anxiety. What's more, if your home is burglarized or damaged by fire or flood, you'll be able to find essential information without delay. Or if something happens to you, your loved ones will be able to find your health-care power of attorney, insurance policies, medical records, outstanding bills, and other items.
As detailed below, you can safely keep most documents in your home in an out-of-the way, locked file cabinet, including documents relating to investment purchases, loans, and other items that expire or are sold. Other documents should be stored in an offsite safe-deposit box, so below we've also listed items to keep there.
To help cut down on some clutter in your home, fire up your shredder from time to time to deal with those documents you no longer need. For advice on disposing of other household items, read "How to Get Rid of Practically Anything."
||Where to store them
||When to toss them
|Bank-deposit slips||At home.||After you reconcile your statements.|
|Banking statements||At home.||After a calendar year; store with tax returns if they will be used to prove deductions.
|Birth and death certificates||Safe-deposit box.
|Brokerage, 401(k), IRA, Keogh, and other investment statements||At home.||Shred monthly and quarterly statements as new ones arrive; hold on to annual statements until you sell the investments.
|Credit-card bills||At home.||After you check and pay them, unless you need them to support tax filings.|
|Employer defined-benefit retirement-plan communications||At home.||Never.
|Estate-planning documents||Safe-deposit box.||Never.
|Household warranties and receipts||At home.||After you no longer own the household item.|
|Insurance policies||At home.||After you renew them.|
|Investment purchase confirmations and 1099s||At home.||Hold until you sell the securities, then keep with your tax records for an additional seven years.
|Life-insurance policies||Safe-deposit box.||Never, unless a term policy has ended.|
|Loan documents||Safe-deposit box.||After you sell your home, automobile, boat, etc.|
|Marriage license or divorce decree||Safe-deposit box.||Never.|
|Military-discharge papers||Safe-deposit box.||Never.|
|Pay stubs||At home.||After you reconcile them with your W-2.|
|Receipts||At home.||After you reconcile them with your credit-card or bank statements unless needed for a warranty.
|Safe-deposit box inventory||At home.||Never, but review and update annually.|
|Savings bonds||At home.||Cash them in when they mature.|
|Social Security cards||Safe-deposit box.||Never.
|Tax returns and supporting documents||At home.||After seven years.|
|Vehicle titles||Safe-deposit box.||After you sell the car, boat, motorcycle, or other vehicle.|