Ripping Up Checks Will Not Necessarily Prevent ID Theft

If you make an error while writing a check, how thoroughly are you shredding it when you toss it out? And in an era where some banks let you deposit checks just by taking a photo with your smartphone, what are you doing with those pieces of paper after the money has cleared?

A couple in California are accused of piecing together ripped-up checks stolen from the trash at a self-storage facility. Rather than just take those taped-together checks to a bank, where they would likely be caught, they used the account and routing numbers on the checks to create counterfeit checks for their own use.

Police say at least 20 people were taken for a total of $16,000 by the scammers, who cashed the bogus checks all around Southern California.

The pair have been charged with 45 felony counts of identity theft, forgery, burglary, grand theft, receiving stolen property, among other charges.

While we’re obviously glad these people were eventually nabbed, they wouldn’t have been able to create these fraudulent checks if the people that had thrown them out had disposed of them properly in the first place.

If you don’t have a proper shredder that will render the documents useless, we recommend that whenever you cut up a check, be sure that the account and routing numbers have been obscured. It also doesn’t hurt if the remnants of the cut-up check are spread out over different bags of trash.

Overkill? Perhaps, but we bet that the victims of this crime are wishing that the folks who disposed of their checks had gone the extra mile.

Couple Allegedly Pieced Together Shredded Checks To Steal $16K From 20 Santa Clarita Victims [CBS L.A.]

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  1. MaxH42 thinks RecordStoreToughGuy got a raw deal says:

    Two words: crosscut shredder.

    • chiieddy says:

      This

    • George4478 says:

      OfficeMax had a periodic special — buy a 5-ream box of printer paper and get a crosscut shredder free.

      I took advantage of this years ago and still use the shredder weekly. Great sale.

    • IphtashuFitz says:

      Crosscut shredders aren’t good enough. My wife & I recently heard a talk by Frank Abignale, arguably one of the top experts on counterfeit checks in the world. He said that with a regular paper shredder he can tape a document back together in about 10 minutes. With a crosscut shredder it would take him a few hours. At the very least you should use a level 4 shredder, which is classified as “commercially sensitive”. For more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_shredder

      • jimbo831 says:

        I bet that was extremely interesting. I would love to hear him talk about anything. Such an interesting life for sure. Wonder what he thinks of the movie about him.

        • IphtashuFitz says:

          I’d seen the movie a few years ago so it wasn’t fresh in my mind. My wife had never seen it so we got it from Netflix after hearing Abignale talk and I was quite disappointed with how many liberties were taken in telling the story. For example, in real life Abignale never met the FBI agent chasing him until after he was arrested and jailed. In the movie he has one or two run-in’s with the Tom Hanks character as well as a few phone calls with him.

          We both also read the book that the movie was based on and although dry I found it much more interesting. I was also disappointed that some things in the book weren’t in the movie. For example Abignale one day realized all the airport check-in agents at an airport he was in, stores in the terminal, etc. would drop their cash & other receipts into the night depository of a bank branch that was also in the terminal. The next day he showed up at the airport just before all this started wearing a security guards uniform, a sign that said “Night Depository Broken – Leave Deposits with Security Guard” and a safe on a hand truck. Like clockwork all the people showed up with their night deposits and left them with Abignale. They didn’t question the “broken” night depository at all. I thought this would have been a great scene in the movie…

          Hearing Abignale talk started out somewhat boring – he kind of droned on for the first 30 minutes or so pretty much re-hashing his early career, almost as if he was reading passages verbatim from his book. But after he got through all that he spent a great deal of time discussing how he realized, as he matured, the harm and damage he had done. (Keep in mind that he committed all his crimes between roughly the ages of 16 and 20). He’s basically spent the last 40 years trying to atone for what he did. He claimed to have swindled around $2.5 million during that time, and roughly $2 million was recovered in safe deposit boxes around the country. He spent years, he claims, repaying every last time of the other $500K that wasn’t recovered. The only person he didn’t pay back was a hooker in Florida who tried to swindle him, so he felt he was justified in not paying her back.

          Abignale has worked for the FBI & other agencies fighting check fraud, credit card fraud, etc. for the past 40 years. He was one of the lead investigators in big fraud cases like the TJ Maxx credit card leak. Given all his help over the past 40 years three different sitting presidents have offered to pardon him but he’s turned down every single one. He says that there’s nothing that a piece of paper can say that his actions every day for the past 40 years doesn’t say better.

      • MaxH42 thinks RecordStoreToughGuy got a raw deal says:

        Wow, thanks, that is pretty cool. I had no idea. However, you can never be 100% safe; usually you have to settle for making yourself a much more difficult target than most other people. I will look into a better shredder, though.

        • IphtashuFitz says:

          Abignale actually mentioned a logo for shredders that you could look for on the box, unfortunately I forget exactly what it was. In general what you want for “better security than your neighbors” is a shredder that’s classified as a micro-cut shredder rather than a cross-cut or ribbon shredder. Micro-cut shredders reportedly will turn an 8.5×11 piece of paper into over 6000 tiny pieces. The higher security micro-cut shredders that meed NSA standards for classified documents turn a sheet in to a minimum of 12,000 pieces. You’re basically turning your paper into dust at that point…

        • maxamus2 says:

          Or just burn them in a fire.

          Or if you do use a shredder, mix it all up, separate it in to several bags and throw the bags away at different times or different places.

      • Emperor Norton I says:

        I bought a micro-shredder from Staples about 5-6 years ago that makes 2mm x 8mm pieces, which I guess would be a Level 4.5, better than Level 4, but not as good as Level 5.

    • maxamus2 says:

      One word: fire.

  2. zigziggityzoo says:

    I have a fireplace.

  3. Costner says:

    First, I put all checks into a cross-cut shredder. Then I use the shredded paper for bedding for my family of gerbils. After they are done with it I move it into a compost pile which I have infused with earthworms. After six months in the compost pile I filter out the earthworms… question each of them individually, and then drive them to different counties throughout the region to prevent them from consorting with one another. I then load the remaining compost into a trailer and haul it to a local organic tomato producer. Then once the tomatos are ripe, I harvest them and then divide them into groups of four with no two groups being distributed to the same family just in case one of them happens to taste like my account number. Since no single tomato would ever taste like the whole account number and routing number, I feel this should be sufficient to prevent check fraud.

    • Hi_Hello says:

      hahahahah

    • Rebecca K-S says:

      Win.

    • phil says:

      The crooks are likely bribing the gerbils for account info while you’re at the organic tomato farm…

    • misterfweem says:

      I’ve already got your routing number. It’s 1-2-3-4-5, right?

    • who? says:

      I was using my shredded office paper in my compost bin, but it wasn’t breaking down fast enough. The bin was always full of lovely, broken down mulch, with pristine, white shredded paper sprinkled throughout.

      I went back to just taking the stuff to work and having them shred it in the shredder they use for classified information.

    • StarKillerX says:

      But what happens if a couple people from the families the tomatoes are distributed to get married and have children. Wouldn’t those children get enough information to defraud you?

      Seems like you need to rework your method some to plug this glaring hole in your security.

      • Costner says:

        You may be on to something. Clearly I need another layer of security. Either than or I will change bank accounts every nine months just to be on the safe side.

    • HogwartsProfessor says:

      You win.

  4. Quirk Sugarplum says:

    I just sell identity theives whole checks out of my checkbook. AND I charge a convenience fee. PROFIT!

  5. GuyGuidoEyesSteveDaveâ„¢ says:

    And that’s why anyone who uses a shredder and doesn’t either burn, soak, or mix it with kitteh litter is asking to have their identity stolen. The only person who could steal my identity after I burn my trash is possibly MacGyver.

    • cybrczch says:

      And he could do it with just a paper clip and some duct tape.

    • There's room to move as a fry cook says:

      You’re dating yourself. From the ‘Quinn Martin production’ generation?

    • Firethorn says:

      I’m going to have to defend shredders here. In this article they pieced together ‘ripped up checks’, not shredded checks. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them were only ripped in half.

      Now yes, my ‘minimum’ standard for a shredder today would be a cross-cut, but it still mangles a check better than what any but the most OCD of hand rippers would be able to do. Heck, even without a cross cut, as long as you’re feedin the check in horizontally instead of vertically you’ll get much the same result. With an ultra-cheap non-cross cut, feeding it in vertically could leave the entire routing number intact.

      Of course, I say all this while taking my personal documents to be shredded into work and feeding them to OUR cross cut shredder. The one that reduces the shred to ‘pieces no larger than 1mm x 5mm’. Where we’re encouraged to shred various ‘unimportant’ things to salt the pile.

      If you’re going to be paranoid enough that you’re worried about people piecing together stuff from a regular crosscut shredder(much less my work’s high security ones), remember that when you burn, you HAVE to burn it to a white ash and stir the ashes. Otherwise information is still retrievable. ;)

      • Not Given says:

        I have a crosscut shredder. I shred everything with a name, address or number on it. I don’t put it in the trash until the bin is full. I might have one shredded check in a full bin. If they can go through that many pieces and pick all the check pieces out and put together enough to get the numbers off, it would be a miracle

    • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

      and here i’d have expected you just to give them to the cats. mix a little catnip in with the papers and the next thing you know the air is full of paper snowflakes

    • Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg says:

      I dunno – it doesn’t seem all that hard to me

  6. bsh0544 says:

    You know I’ve got a diamond cut shredder and I still worry that it could leave an account number visible. I think the only reliable way to dispose of account numbers is incineration.

    • Willow16 says:

      We burn our shredding in our wood stove in the winter and fire pit in the summer. I don’t want to take any chances.

  7. catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

    and this is why i burn so much of my paper trash. i know that’s not an option for most people but it makes me feel better

  8. Dryfus Ranon says:

    What’s a check? Havent written one in awhile. Autopay via credit cards and billpay thru banks. All credit applications and anything that could be data mined is crosscut shredded and before use, the shredder is oiled.

  9. Slow-talking Walter, the fire-engine guy. says:

    Not checks, but an article I always found interesting about a ripped up credit card application….

    http://cockeyed.com/citizen/creditcard/application.shtml

  10. dolemite says:

    I’ve often wondered…when I give a check to someone, they have all the numbers they need to make electronic payments, correct? I pay my water bill online and they take electronic checks. I simply need the bank account number and routing number and my name, and they are processed like actual checks.

    So what’s to stop anyone with a check I’ve written from doing the same?

  11. Snowball2 says:

    But how long should you keep checks that you have deposited via photo? Until the deposit appears in your account? I just wonder about what happens if a bank says there was a problem with that deposit and we’re taking back the amount credited to your account. Wouldn’t you need some documentation to prove that the check deposit was legitimate? So if you should keep it until sometime after deposit–how long?

    • msbask says:

      This is a great question and one I’ve been wondering about all week. Someone gave me a check for $100, which I deposited into my Citibank account via the snap-a-photo deposit system (whatever it’s called).

      Now what do I do with the check? It cleared, but what’s to prevent them from coming to me a month from now and telling me there’s an issue?

  12. vivalakellye says:

    That’s why you should write “VOID” across the check and keep it in your checkbook.

  13. Ceric Neesh says:

    I burn ALL checks and receipts with anything more than the last 4 of my CC number. Also, any traffic warnings, and all traffic tickets after 90 days post resolve (90 days after I pay the ticket or otherwise deal with it). Furthermore, I print over any documents that contain information I know already (such as my SSN) if I need to keep the documents themselves. Having a laser-align printer that can fill out documents is a wonderful thing.

    • LastError says:

      You should keep proof that you paid any tickets for the rest of your natural life. Places with the power to issue tickets have a frightening habit of forgetting that people have, in fact, paid tickets.

      When this happens, they send out nice men and women with badges to lock you up, because the system says you didn’t pay. You scoundrel.

      That little piece of “July 1995 fine paid!” receipt paper can do a world of good when it’s their crappy system against your word.

      You should also keep tax forms and record for at least 8 years. Although if the IRS is claiming fraud, they are not limited by statute of limitations. You should also keep your last two pay stubs and the last one you get in any given year, or the last one you get when you leave a job. These can help you prove income if/when the workplace fails to provide a W-2. It happens.

  14. Ed says:

    Wait….people still use checks?

  15. guspaz says:

    I find that thermite can effectively sanitize pretty much anything :P

    More seriously, for paper, a bit of water and a blender would probably do well enough. Maybe even without the water. And once you blend it into sufficiently small pieces, it should burn much better.

  16. LastError says:

    It’s not just used checks. Every check you write and give/mail to anyone has all your account info right there on it. And your name and address and phone number, and sometimes maiden names, and sometimes even SSNs.

    So next time you pay for groceries with a check or mail it in to pay a bill or leave in the collection plate at church, remember you’ve just given up all that info not only to the checkout clerk but to everyone who has access to the checks at the store, at the store’s bank, at clearinghouse banks, and maybe your bank. You can’t see any of these people. You don’t know who they are. You have a lot of trust, don’t you?

    Checks are a disaster waiting to happen.

  17. wackydan says:

    I BURN EVERYTHING. Problem solved.

  18. Alan_Schezar says:

    They also have local shredding plants which charge by the pound. Cheap, easy, and they mix your shreddings with other people’s so it’s near impossible to piece together. In addition, you don’t have to spend ~5mins/day shredding in your personal crosscut. Just let it pile in the garage, then haul off a few boxes of paper to the public shredder every 6 months or so.

  19. mikes1982 says:

    Definitely use a crosscut or microcut shredder. Strip cut shreds are not as secure, plus it will fill up the bin much faster. I know Staples has a huge assortment of shredders, and they are always running deals on them.

    When it comes to identity theft, only about half the victims actually know how it occurred. A good rule of thumb is to shred anything that has your name, account information, or any other personal information on it (including junk mail). On average, a victim of identity theft suffers a $500 loss PLUS spends roughly 30 hours trying to resolve the issue. Don’t forget to shred your children’s information too. Most children do not have accounts that are monitored regularly – which means it will take a lot longer to discover there is an issue.

    Knowing this, investing in shredder seems like a pretty good plan. I can think of a lot better things to do with $500 and 30 hours of my time than to waste it on someone stealing my identity.