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Local Column

AKST: Know your enemy, then shred it

I’ve been busy destroying my past.

Not in an exotic way, like removing my fingerprints with acid so the cops don’t catch me.

This destruction is a chore brought on by a recent home disaster and a gnawing sense of disorganization.

In March, a water pipe in our basement broke. Everything’s fixed now, but to empty the room we moved stuff all over the rest of the house. Now we’re putting it back.

My wife and I have realized that paper is our demon: receipts, magazines, bill statements … you name it. We’re highly skilled at keeping paper, but we struggle to store it efficiently or, better yet, get rid of it.

Now I’m spending hours looking through years- and decades-old stacks of crap, wondering why I saved it in the first place but determined not to kick the can further down the road.

I’m not talking about love letters or poems your kid wrote. You keep that stuff.

I’m talking about utility bills. Warranties for appliances we no longer own. Memos from jobs we haven’t had in years.

Paper clutter is worse than most junk. Old furniture, for example, can be hauled away quickly, but you have to review paper clutter before discarding.

And paper clutter is dangerous. It’s psychologically burdensome. It’s a fire hazard, and in the case of our basement, it’s a humidity hazard. See, every bit of paper soaks up water from the air. The less water-absorbing material, the easier it is to keep your basement dry.

Worst of all, paper clutter is candy for identity thieves.

Javelin Strategy & Research, a research firm that studies consumer transactions, reported in February that the number of identity fraud victims in the United States jumped to 13.1 million in 2013. That’s the second highest number of victims since Javelin began conducting its annual study in 2004.

For sure, much identity theft comes from electronic data breaches, but not all identity theft happens online. I’ll cover electronic identity theft in an upcoming column.

In fact, according to credit monitoring service Equifax (citing 2011 data from Travelers Insurance), the top cause of identity theft is not the Internet, but rather, stolen wallets and purses. Also high on the list are stolen documents that contain critical personal information.

Equifax urges people to “shred old bills and other unnecessary financial records.”

What then, is an “unnecessary financial record”? What must you keep? What can you discard, and when?

By “discard,” I mean shred everything that remotely identifies you, and unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule for each document, but the short answer is that you should destroy most documents sooner than later.

Look at appropriate document destruction as empowerment, notes financial guru Suze Orman. “When you consciously open, read, and file away your bills and statements, you are connecting with your money and taking control of your life,” she writes.

Orman’s thoughts also are the gist of a Consumer Reports how-to based on the advice of Stephanie Denton, author of “The Organized Life: Secrets of an Expert Organizer.”

The easy part: Never discard birth/death certificates, marriage licenses/divorce decrees, military discharge papers, pension-plan documents, property deeds/titles, critical legal papers, or Social Security cards. Keep them in a safe deposit box.

Documents relating to investment purchases or loans, vehicle records and warranties for appliances and furniture can be discarded as soon as the loan is paid or the warranty expires.

Keep all tax returns seven years.

Just about everything else? Shred after a year, two years tops.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter @JasonAkst.

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