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Dumpster Divers Could Be the Next Sony Hackers

While changing your password for the tenth time, don’t forget to look in the garbage can.


Businesses invest trillions in IT security each year to protect confidential and private information in the digital world. While effective, these technologies and protocols are not ironclad, and the one thing they definitely can’t protect is the security of physical documents.

It may sound silly, but paper is making news despite the recent focus on cyber security. A few weeks ago, a Brooklyn warehouse caught fire and scattered thousands of confidential documents around the city. Wired recently profiled a dumpster diver who makes more than $250,000 annually by collecting electronics from corporate dumpsters.

Consider for a moment the information you regularly print. Only our most sacred and personal documents ever make it off the screen and onto paper. Tax returns, W-2s, bank statements, investment reports, contracts, etc., contain private information that in the wrong hands could become a serious liability.

There’s a serious risk lurking in your employee’s trash can.

No one goes through trash cans anymore, right?

It may sound trashy (no pun intended), but dumpster diving is gaining momentum. Matt Malone, the dumpster diver, estimates that he makes an average of $2,500 a night searching dumpsters of retailers for resalable products. Rob Greenfield is on a mission to encourage more people to save food from the landfill. He has already convinced more than 1,000 people to join him in dumpster diving, and is offering to pay fines for anyone who is ticketed in the name of reducing food waste.

But valuable products and food are not the only things that can be found in the dumpster. For many businesses, there is something far more valuable at stake: Confidential business information including employee records, customer information and business financial information.

The problem with paper

As the world is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of protecting our digital identities, some of the simplest ways of protecting business information can be easily overlooked. Threats to corporate information security are not always digital, and the protection of physical documents is often discounted.

We may think we’re living in a digital age, but research shows that 89 percent of businesses are still using hard copies for record keeping. For example, while electronic tax filing continues to increase year over year, more than 19 million people in the U.S. filed their taxes the old-fashioned way in 2014, according to the IRS. Even if you are filing online and managing your employee and contractor forms electronically, odds are that you’re still hitting the “print” key quite often for your CPA and records.

Recent headlines make it clear that we need to better protect private information, and solutions may be easier and more effective than you thought.

Are your employees putting you at risk?

Laws and regulations are in place to ensure the proper and responsible disposal of certain documents. For example finance, HR and legal department documents, as well as anything with personally identifiable information (including the majority of the required documentation for tax returns), should be shredded to a super micro-cut, or 6,200 shreds per 8.5″ x 11″ sheet. Compliance is not guaranteed, though, and regulations are not all-encompassing.

Paper shredding may be one of the simplest ways to keep information secure, and 24 percent of people surveyed agreed that it is the most important thing a company can do, according to Swingline’s Stack-and-Shred survey. Despite this, nearly half of respondents (45 percent) said their employers don’t always use a paper shredder or shredding service to destroy sensitive business information. Of those, 20 percent reported they never shred. Overall, more than a quarter of respondents admitted to tossing sensitive documents straight to the dumpster without shredding, leaving valuable information at risk.

Securing your hard copies

In Houston, hundreds of improperly discarded documents containing personal information from a local tax preparer were discovered in a dumpster. We’ve also seen pharmacy and patient records finding their way to the dumpster. A few weeks ago, a Brooklyn warehouse caught fire and scattered thousands of confidential documents around the city.

It’s not unheard of for businesses to be the targets of criminal information seekers. In fact, it’s one of the vulnerabilities that businesses often overlook. While information security will continue to dominate headlines, and as businesses increase investments in cyber security, don’t forget to implement the policies, processes and equipment to secure printed documents, as well. Make the small investment in a high-tech shredder with auto-feed and other security features to make it easy for employees to comply.

Don’t overlook the risks that may be sitting in the bottom of your employee’s trash can.

Thomas. W. Tedford is U.S. president of ACCO Brands America, where he is responsible for sales, marketing and operations in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America for iconic office product brands, including Swingline, Cambridge, Mead, Day-Timer and more.

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