Know what you need
“In most cases the only documents you need to keep at home are important ID documents such as a passport, driving licence and birth certificate,” says John Webb, the consumer affairs manager at the credit reference agency Experian.
Most other documents can be stored more safely in digital format.
If you need to complete a self-assessment tax return, for example, there are certain documents you must keep, in case HM Revenue and Customs wants to check that the amount of tax you paid tallies with your records. These include any documents related to your finances, such as interest payments, or connected to pay and employment, such as a P45 and P60, as well as details of benefits payments.
HMRC does not stipulate how you should store these – you can choose to keep paper or digital records, or use book-keeping software. But it does specify for how long you should keep them – it could be up to five years if you are self-employed.
If you complete a tax return on or before the deadline, the rules state that you should keep your records for at least 22 months after the end of the tax year the tax return is for. If you submit your tax return after the deadline, you need to keep records for 15 months after the date on which you submitted it. If you are self-employed, you need to keep your records for five years after the 31 January submission deadline for the tax year in question.
Paper might beat rock in the game rock paper scissors but from an identity theft risk point of view, digital beats paper.
“People should take advantage of the banks’ offers to send statements electronically, whether that means by email or accessing them through banking apps or via secure logins,” says Steve Goddard, a fraud subject matter expert at Featurespace, a technology company that specialises in combating fraud and financial crime.
“You don’t need to have your bank statements, or any sort of sensitive documents, sent to you directly,” he adds. The same goes for utility bills and salary details.
However, there are circumstances in which you may need to produce them, of course. “When you apply for credit, companies might ask for bills or statements to confirm your identity. This can be common when you apply for a mortgage. They usually ask for ones that are dated within the last three months,” Webb says.
But, he says, many companies will accept electronic versions of these bills or statements, so you don’t need to keep these around your house. “If they do request an original, you can in most cases request one to be sent to you when you need it.”
If you still receive financial or other confidential documents in the post from time to time, consider photographing or scanning them to store online, and then destroying the hard copies.
Store safely – online and offline
“It’s a good idea not to walk around with your important documents and your ID together, or leave them in your car,” Webb says.
Similarly, he says, keep paperwork locked up and out of the way at home – not lying around on the kitchen table. “Don’t underestimate what level of information is useful to a criminal – any sort of information that they can gather, they can use to impersonate you or create a synthetic ID.”
While it may be tidy to keep all your admin in one drawer in one room of the house, experts say it is wise to keep documents in different places. Storing everything together in one place would make things very easy for someone looking to steal your personal information.
It is just as important to take care of digital admin, Webb says. “If you decide to store electronic copies of documents, then it is important to make sure your device is password-protected. So don’t carry around a USB drive with all your important documents on,” he says.
Destroy old documents
“It’s important to carefully destroy any documents that contain personal information before you dispose of them,” Webb says. “Throwing these out intact could result in your information ending up in the wrong hands, and if a fraudster does get hold of your personal details, you could be more likely to become a victim of ID fraud.”
If you do still regularly receive paper statements or other documents, he adds, it may be worthwhile investing in a shredder so you can destroy them properly before throwing them out. Consider a cross-cut shredder if possible. These cut paper into smaller pieces and make it more difficult to piece together documents than a standard strip-cut machine.
“Shred your documents,” Goddard agrees. “And that includes things like postage labels you get on a delivery from Amazon, which have your address and details all over them. You need to make sure you take those labels off and destroy them, or alternatively use a thick marker pen to obscure the details.”
If you are faced with large quantities of confidential documents, perhaps because you run a business from home, or you are dealing with a loved one’s affairs after a bereavement, it might make sense to outsource your shredding.
There are many services that will provide you with a sealable bag for confidential waste, then collect and shred your documents in an industrial machine. Costs and quantities vary – for example, Squab Shredding in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, charges £7 for a bag of up to 16kg, with no minimum quantity.
It is not only hard copies that should be destroyed – digital copies should be securely deleted when you no longer need them.
Monitor your credit rating
There are a number of warning signs that could show your personal documents have been used by people seeking to steal from you or to apply for credit in your name.
Check bank statements and look out for payments you don’t recall making.
Be vigilant if official letters you are expecting go missing in the post – it could mean your correspondence is being redirected to a fraudster.
Equally, if you receive letters or emails about products or services you never requested, alarm bells should go off. If you have a credit application refused unexpectedly, it might mean multiple applications have been made by someone using your name.
“It’s worth checking your free credit report with all three credit reference agencies [Experian, Equifax and TransUnion] at least once a year” Webb says.