By PAUL GORES
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
The shenanigans of Enron Corp. and Arthur Andersen notwithstanding, a growing number of consumers view paper shredders as an important tool for preventing crime rather than as a device for abetting corporate cover-ups.
As concerns about identity theft grow, more Americans are using these document-mincing machines to make sure discarded records don't end up in the hands of thieves.
In identity theft, a criminal steals a person's Social Security number and other forms of identification and then opens credit-card accounts or impersonates the victim to spend money and run up debt.
"This past year, there was a huge increase in identity-theft cases reported," said Jamie Martin, the shredder production manager for Fellowes Inc. in Itasca, Ill. "I think most people were aware of the identity-theft issue, but that kind of news is an impetus to translate awareness into action, and people are starting to be more active in going out and buying shredders."
Last month, the Federal Trade Commission reported that complaints of identity theft nearly doubled in 2002, making it the fastest-growing crime on the government's list of consumer fraud for the third consecutive year. The FTC said 43 percent of about 380,000 complaints last year involved the theft of personal information, such as a Social Security or credit-card number, to steal money or commit fraud.
On the rise
Martin said Fellowes, which produces about 20 models of paper shredder, has seen shredder sales grow about 10 percent to 15 percent a year over the last few years.
Martin said last year's Enron scandal -- in which accounting giant Arthur Andersen was convicted of obstruction of justice for shredding records of its client, Enron -- triggered a spike in sales of shredders.
Jerry Olson, manager of Office Depot at 16095 W. Blue Mound Road in Brookfield, Wis., said there has been a steady rise in personal paper-shredder sales over the past five years.
"A lot of people are looking for ways to secure their identity, to take care of records that may have their numbers and that type of thing," said Olson, who declined to provide details about sales.
Hands vs. shredder
Certainly it makes sense to destroy unneeded financial and medical documents that thieves could sift from your trash can. But is a shredder better than simply tearing them up?
It depends how completely you rip them up. Shredders cut up documents in one of two ways: either into strips that typically are no more than a quarter-inch wide, or into bits that resemble confetti. In either method, the destruction is quite thorough, although one employee at an office product store said the confetti approach allows virtually no chance that a document could be painstakingly taped back together.
Today's shredders do more than destroy paper. Many models also are powerful enough to cut up plastic credit cards, and some even will cut CDs to pieces. Almost all of them have no trouble handling staples.
What you'll pay
As with most products, when it comes to shredders, you get what you pay for, said Office Depot's Olson.
"Normally, when you're talking about home use, they're looking in the $19.99 to $99.99 range," he said.
The less expensive units tend to be the ones that cut documents into strips, and the number of pages that can be put through at one time is likely to be limited to perhaps five.
"We do have a number of customers who will buy shredders for their homes even up to $200 or so because they've had shredders with issues like jamming up," Olson said.
Experts say consumers should shred any unneeded document containing account numbers or personal information. Among those documents are pay stubs, canceled checks, account statements, medical records, direct-mail credit card approvals, insurance forms, legal papers and anything with a Social Security number.
Olson noted that although shredders are easy to operate, they do require some simple care. The metal blades that cut up the paper need oil periodically.