04-25-2014 01:13 PM
In the award-winning thriller “Argo,” while Ben Affleck’s character leads escaping Americans to an airport in Tehran, Iranian carpet weavers working for state security meticulously piece together thousands of strands of shredded paper and come up with a face that can potentially doom the Americans.
It was a starring role for the lowly paper shredder.
This wasn’t a completely fictionalized Hollywood drama. The Iranian hostage crisis did highlight the ubiquity of paper shredding in espionage work and its frightening fallibility, and it brought about new standards in government shredding.
The message of “Argo” is pretty clear: Leave a paper trail, and you may be in trouble.
The same theme rings true when it comes to your financial documents. According to Javelin Strategy & Research, there were 13.1 million victims of identity fraud in the United States in 2013. In that year, thieves ripped off one identity every three seconds and stole nearly $21 billion. Bank information was stolen in 10% of cases, and 16% of cases involved the theft of a Social Security number.
Prolific American inventor Abbot Augustus Low of New York state received a patent for a “waste paper receptacle” nearly a hundred years ago, but the modern shredder really came into its own through the clandestine activities of anti-Nazi activist Adolf Ehinger of Balingen, Germany.
In the 1930s, a neighbor noticed some of Ehinger’s writings in a garbage can and warned him about the consequences. Ehinger adapted his wife’s pasta maker to the task and in 1936 added an electric motor, and soon after the modern shredder was born. Ehinger had grown his adapted pasta maker into the largest paper shredding concern in the world by the time he passed away in the early 1980s.
Ehinger’s model cut the paper into strips, basically creating paper-thin fettuccine. It remained the standard shredder form until Iranian militants showed its flaws. Soon after, U.S. embassies were instructed to thoroughly pulverize all documents.
A number of rather infamous figures from American politics and business have relied on shredders to cover their tracks: G. Gordon Liddy used a Shredmaster 400 to get rid of his paper trail to the 1972 Democratic headquarters break-in. About 15 years later, Oliver North and his secretary, Fawn Hall, obliterated Iran-Contra evidence with the help of an Intimus 007-S.
These days, there are a number of ways to go if you want to achieve Oliver North-level protection from identity thieves or just nosy Nellies. There is the now largely discredited strip-cut shredder that has been supplanted by the cross-cut shredder, which turns docs into confetti. If even confetti has you worried, then there are disintegrators and grinders that reduce paper to the point where it can pass through fine mesh. And if it seems depressing that a perfectly good tree has been reduced to such a state, then you’ll be relieved to know that an entire recycling industry has sprung up to catch the paper waste and turn the detritus into everything from home insulation to stuffing for pet beds.
We’ll admit there is one elusive shredder we’d love to see. It was invented by a lawyer named Henry Perky 15 years before Low. He never patented his device either, but used it to build a cereal company in Niagara Falls, N.Y. It was called the Shredded Wheat Company.
It’s Only a Paper Trail ...
It’s true that thieves are increasingly ripping off consumers using electronic means, such as skimming, where crooks install false fronts on ATMs to steal debit card information. However, paper remains one of the easiest ways to steal identities or loot personal accounts. Here are a few suggestions for helping protect your personal documents.
• Never carry your Social Security card with you. You’ve known the number since you were 16, so why carry it? Put it in a safe deposit box with your birth certificate.
• Never put bills, prescription labels, financial documents or any other personal papers in the trash without shredding first. Before it ends up in the landfill, your trash is prey to dumpster-diving thieves.
• Make a checklist of when to expect various bills each month. In a new scheme to capture personal information, identity thieves have begun filing change-of-address forms to divert bills and bank statements without the account holder’s knowledge. The post office now sends move-validation letters to the original address to combat this fraud.
• Don’t leave bills, bank statements or other sensitive documents in plain sight. Anyone visiting your home — a cleaning person, courier or even your reprobate Uncle Ernie — can lift them off your desk.
• Take outgoing mail to the post office or collection boxes, and place mail on hold when on vacation.
• Switch to online banking and bill paying. Despite paranoia about computer hackers, online transactions are more secure than paper bill paying. If you have to write checks, deposit your mail at the post office.
• Monitor your credit report for fraudulent activity. USAA offers credit monitoring and identity protection services.
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