BOISE - To find out how much information identity thieves can get from people throwing away bills, mail and other documents, KTVB took a pile of paperwork to Boise Police to find out what kind of information people leave on the curb.
Identity theft costs Americans billions of dollars each year: There's bank and credit card fraud, medical identity theft, even utility theft. While a lot of identity theft these days happens online, police say criminals still go the old-fashioned way sometimes and will literally dig through trash to find information.
"If a person is dedicated and desperate enough to want to commit serious identity theft, yes they will actually dig through this type of material to get it," Detective Wade Spain said.
Spain works financial crimes cases at the Boise Police Department, and he agreed to look through piles of a KTVB reporter's mail to show what is and isn't safe to throw away immediately.
Spain says magazines, standard junk mail like pizza coupons and things marked with "to current resident" are usually fine to dump. As for what should be shredded first or kept: Bank statements and credit card offers.
"If you were just to throw (a credit card offer) away as is, somebody else could get a hold of it, apply for that credit card in your name, just change the address where it's sent back to, and away they go with a new credit card," Spain said.
He also says to check receipts and bills for anything with your credit card number and expiration date. Usually receipts don't have that anymore, but you should check them because some of the older carbon copy type machines still print the full card information.
Spain also warns against tossing utility bills without shredding them first.
"That's another type of identity theft we see really, really commonly is people stealing other people's identities and getting utility services set up using a stolen identity," Spain said.
Anything with your social security, license plate or vehicle information should also be considered as potentially useful to a thief. A newer concern is anything with your medical information, including insurance statements, prescription orders and receipts.
"Whether it be a bill or a statement, an insurance statement, something along those lines, a copy of a prescription receipt, those types of things. That all contain a lot of personal information not only about an individual, but there's also account numbers and different things a person could use," Spain said. "One of the biggest types of identity theft we deal with, and oftentimes some of the most devastating medical theft we deal with, is medical identity theft."
Spain says the high prices of certain medical procedures have made it more common for people to use stolen identities to get medical care. He recently dealt with a devastating case of medical identity theft in Boise.
"My suspect actually made multiple trips to the ER using someone else's name," Spain said.
To find out how much personal information people are throwing away, that the detective says isn't safe, we dug through recycle bins and dumpsters in public alleys. As you'd imagine, we found a lot of undesirable things, but it didn't take long to find important papers. Along with standard junk mail, flyers and ads, we saw tax commission mail, collections bills, bank statements, account numbers, and utility bills.
While looking at trash and talking to people, we met people who'd been victims of identity theft. Spain says he personally has been a victim as well.
"It's something that everyone has to be aware of. I myself have become a victim of identity theft. Many, many coworkers of mine have become identity theft victims," Spain said.
As a detective and a victim, we asked Spain what he personally does now to protect his own identity. He says he's more careful about what he throws away and makes sure to use a paper shredder.
"People that would tend to do identity theft; they are for the most part, opportunists, so they aren't going to spend a lot of time piecing stuff back together. As long as you make it a little bit difficult for them, that's usually enough to make them go on and leave your stuff alone," Spain said.
Spain also gave me a lot of tips on avoiding identity theft online and while traveling, including using a prepaid debit card, which he's personally done.
Also, while shopping online, he advises to look for secure websites. Those will be indicated by a lock in the top corner of the browser, and the web address will begin with "https://" rather than "http://". The "s" indicates a secure site.
If you believe you're the victim of identity theft, Spain says to call your local police. Also, call any entity that may have compromised information.
The FTC offers form letters consumers can use to contact credit card, utility, medical companies and more, if you believe you're a victim.