How can I safely dispose of important personal documents and computer data?

Andrew Stucken / 03 July 2013

Most of us know about the dangers of throwing away sensitive documents with the rest of the rubbish. The idea of criminals rummaging through your dustbin or scavenging on landfill for your personal data may seem far-fetched, but identity theft and crime involving stolen bank and credit card data are big business. Fortunately, you can greatly reduce your risk of falling victim.

Documents you should destroy before discarding include those with bank and credit card numbers, legal and medical information, and passwords or your signature.

The simplest method is to buy a shredder – but if the idea of using these paper-chewing machines does not appeal, there are alternatives.



A basic shredder costs as little as £10, and more sophisticated machines upwards of £50. A shredder essentially consists of the shredding unit – slots for feeding documents into rows of metallic teeth – and a bin to collect the waste.

Cross-cut shredders are more expensive, but as criminals have been known to piece back together documents shredded into the conventional thin strips, cross-cut lends added security.

All shredders should be designed to conform to safety standards, but a little care when feeding in documents is advisable.


Shredding services

Local councils do, of course, offer waste disposal and recycling facilities, but would probably advise you to use a commercial service for shredding.

If the volume of documents warrants it, and depending on where you live, you could have a large quantity of documents shredded for a minimum charge of around £80.

Burning documents is a simpler solution, but do exercise caution. Select a safe place to incinerate them and consider any local fire restrictions.

Soaking will cause papers to dissolve into a soggy mess and render them easy to tear apart. The sodden documents will readily stick together and should thus - even when dry - be illegible. 


To obliterate only certain areas of a document

Redacting pens will obscure data by covering them in indelible ink – useful for deleting data within documents that you wish to retain.

Anti-tamper stickers are designed to tear the document if anyone tries to peel them off.

Hole punch: A more laborious method - punch away at a sensitive area in a document until the area containing the sensitive information is destroyed.


Computer data

We store masses of personal data on our computers. Simply formatting your hard disk to erase data before disposing of the machine is insufficient – a savvy crook can still recover it -   but you can use a free programme such as Darik’s Boot and Nuke or HDD Erase to wipe it more thoroughly.

Even then there is no absolute guarantee – for complete security you need to physically destroy the hard disk.

If physically wrecking it yourself is not practical, you could have it industrially shredded, and surprisingly cheaply – I was quoted just £5 – plus shipping costs.

Alternatively, you could simply remove the disk and store it somewhere safe – fine as long as no-one breaks in and steals it…

Removable media such as CDs and DVDs should be erased using your computer. Again, for extra security you can destroy them in various ways. Sanding is effective, if messy, and cutting into strips with scissors will do the job, but is not without hazard. Using a hole punch to cut at least a dozen holes in the disk, or scratching the surface with a knife, are other options.

Whichever method you select, do it with care. 


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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.