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The Basics

Fighting identity theft? Let's party!

If you keep private documents around your home or office, or toss them in the trash, you're just asking to become a fraud victim. No wonder shredding parties are rising in popularity.

By The Wall Street Journal

On a recent Saturday, Bob Maes scraped a melted chocolate bar off his son's wagon, loaded it with eight years' worth of financial records and set off to join his neighbors for Shredder Day in Brielle, N.J.

"It's great to get rid of the clutter and to have all this information you wouldn't want to get into someone else's hands just be gone," said Maes, a 55-year-old financial adviser. "As long as this stuff exists, you feel vulnerable."

The line wrapped around the borough hall's parking lot as about 200 locals waited to drop off financial statements and other paperwork -- measured in pounds -- and watch it get diced to confetti. A monitor built into the exterior of the shredding truck provided a live view of the process.

Local governments, corporations and small businesses around the country are increasingly partnering with mobile shredding companies to host free get-togethers, some of which resemble homespun carnivals. In addition to paper recycling, there's often another cause attached, such as raising money for cancer research or crime prevention. But the chief appeal is a more visceral one: preventing identity theft.

Janine Godwin, a 47-year-old professional organizer in Katy, Texas, has donated her time to coordinate six free "festive" mobile shredding events over the past three years in her area. To lure participants, the events feature extras such as decorations, clowns, face painting, dogs and cats available for adoption, information booths, cookies and refreshments. "Just shredding can be boring," Godwin said.

Mobile shredders -- essentially retooled box trucks containing industrial-size paper shredders -- might be to adults with sensitive documents what ice cream trucks are to children on a hot summer day.

At the Brielle event, which was sponsored by Monmouth County, N.J., locals compared their loads and, competing with the roaring sound of the truck, laughed when confessing to how long, where and why they've been collecting the items. Conga-line-style, every few minutes the group would shuffle forward carrying, dragging and kicking documents closer to the truck.

Growing in popularity

Although there are no hard data tracking the number of such shred-a-thons, people in the paper-shredding industry say the events are becoming more popular. Tom Thompson, the general manager of Information Protection Solutions of America, a Chicago consortium of 90 shredding companies, says inquiries he's received about shredding events have doubled to three or four a week since the financial crisis hit last year.

Identity theft experts say holding on to unsecured confidential information around the house, or disposing of it improperly by not shredding it first, is a first-class ticket to becoming a victim of fraud.

"People who don't shred are acting extremely unwise," said Adam Levin, the chairman and a co-founder of Identity Theft 911, an identity theft education company in Scottsdale, Ariz. "When someone gets their hands on your name, address and Social Security number, they own you."

With paper fraud accounting for 25% of reported data breaches during the first half of the year, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit in San Diego, mobile shredders provide a quick solution to a critical but otherwise tedious at-home ritual.

The green factor is another reason behind the rising popularity of shredding events. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, every ton of paper recycled saves 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space and 7,000 gallons of water -- and enough energy to power the average American home for half a year.

"I have six kids, and the little decisions I can do to leave a better world behind for them helps me sleep better," said Donnetta Campbell, 45, of Westport, Conn. Campbell, a public-relations professional, says she consumes more than 100 sheets of paper a week and recently attended a shredding event in Windsor, Conn.

After the material is shredded, it is sorted into different grades. Then contaminants are removed. The fragments are baled and eventually sold to paper mills. The recycled fibers can eventually make a comeback as low-grade paper products like paper towels and toilet paper.

Many personal shredders on the market require users to insert one or a few sheets at a time, which can take hours. On average, a mobile shredder can devour 6,000 pounds of paper per hour with a total capacity of 10,000 pounds. That equals one filled standard-size paper storage box gone in less than a minute.

400 pounds of paper

Judith Briles, an author living in Aurora, Colo., says she had more than 400 pounds of paper, some dating as far back as 1980, shredded in less than five minutes at a recent local shred-a-thon. The disposed documents included old bills, bank statements and research for her master's thesis.

Mobile shredders are contracted by high-volume paper-consuming facilities such as hospitals, schools and banks to dispose of client files and sensitive information.

Although rates vary depending on how far a truck has to travel and the volume of the job, hiring a mobile shredder can range from $150 to $250 an hour. And with the average shred-a-thon lasting four hours, it can be costly for companies to provide the service to the public.

But many shredder companies donate their services or provide them at cost. "We don't do these events to make money," said Jeffrey Rupp, the president of Incred-A-Shred in Baltimore. "We do them to give back to the community and hopefully generate more business over time."

In an effort to raise money for the American Cancer Society, Donna Brockway, a 48-year-old accountant, persuaded ProShred Security, a mobile shredding company in Elmsford, N.Y., to donate its services for a third year in a row. "I was looking for a unique fundraiser that would draw attention," Brockway said. This year's event garnered $962 in donations.

Earlier this year in Denver, Shred-It, a company in Oakville, Ontario, provided 14 trucks in five locations at no charge for a daylong initiative to raise money for the Denver Metro Crime Stoppers, a 24-hour tip line. The trucks shredded 242,000 pounds of material and raised about $35,000.

Video: How to stop identity theft cold

James Holmes, 46, a business coach and trainer, used the event to eliminate 25 boxes of confidential material he'd had in his basement, he said.

Terry Grist, a paper-recycling specialist at the EPA, says there is no one way to organize community shredding events. Businesses and local governments alike have a hand in spearheading the logistics of an event by working with a shredding company to contract a truck.

In some cases, there is no middleman. Westchester County, N.Y., owns two mobile shredders. Louis Vetrone, the deputy commissioner for the Department of Environmental Facilities for the county, says the county expects to stage about 200 shredding events this year, up from about from 20 in 2007.

"It basically pays for itself," Vetrone said, since the paper gathered is eventually sold.

This article was reported by Stephanie Raposo for The Wall Street Journal.

Published Oct. 20, 2009

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