Each year, it seems that more and more people reach out to Barefoot Professional Investigations when they need a private investigator for computer forensics, or when they require computer debugging in Charlotte, NC. It makes sense, since cybercrime is on the rise. But it’s also distressing since the numbers of victims seem to increase year after year. Based on our experience, there are some simple rules for data retention, storage, and destruction that can protect your identity, finances, and reputation.
How Long Should You Retain Documents?
Some records should only be saved for a short period of time. Utility bills, credit card receipts, and other recurring bills should be kept only long enough to ensure payment has cleared, or that your account is balanced and reconciled. Some statements (like your retirement plan) will be sent quarterly with a master statement at year-end; save the annuals for the appropriate period of time, and dispose of the quarterlies.
Your insurance policies, be they health, auto, or home, should be kept for as long as that policy is in effect. As the years roll over, or if changes are made to your plan, those versions should supplant the older paperwork on file.
When you’re dealing with assets — from financial instruments to real estate, vehicles, or household items — the documentation should be retained for as long as you hold the item. So, for instance, your vehicle title and documentation should be kept for as long as you own the vehicle. Warranty information should be retained for as long as the warranty is valid (read carefully to make sure you’re saving the warranty for the appropriate amount of time, especially in instances where state law or a credit card agreement extends that protection).
You’ve probably heard that you’re supposed to keep tax returns and associated paperwork (forms, bank and interest statements, W2s, receipts, and the like) for seven years. However, the IRS suggests keeping most tax paperwork for three years, with some exceptions.
Some records should never be destroyed, and these are often the ones that need the most security. They include your passport, DD-214, Social Security card, certificates of birth or adoption, marriage licenses, divorce decrees, and estate planning documents like trusts, wills, and power of attorney.
Record Retention and Preservation
Once you’ve thinned the herd, the next question is how best to preserve the documents that remain. Some documents — especially those that are government-issued — should be retained in physical form, though it can be a good idea to make scans for backup. With more and more financial activity being conducted online, a growing number of documents are issued in digital form.
Which, in turn, brings us to backups. As a rule, you should have at least three backups of key files where possible. One should be onsite, one offsite, and one in the cloud. A UL-listed fireproof safe is best for physical records and can be a good place for a hard drive that offers another layer of redundancy. A safe deposit box is also a good idea. And cloud backup can add still more security — as long as that server uses robust encryption and security measures. Any files on your computer, in turn, should be kept in a password-protected partition.
Record Destruction: What Works Best?
As you’ve probably gathered by now, there’s a host of paperwork you may have been holding onto for years that you really don’t need. So what’s the safest way to dispose of sensitive paperwork? Shredding using a cross-cut shredder can get rid of everything from papers to old identification and expired credit cards, making a quality shredder a worthwhile investment. But if you’re tackling several years’ worth of paperwork — your own, or someone else’s if you happen to be an executor — it can be worthwhile to contact a professional records disposal company.
As more of our lives migrate to computers, social networks, and the cloud, we’re awash in data. Because of that — and the rise in novel criminal activity that has accompanied it — data protection takes on added urgency. A strong firewall and good antivirus software are both essential. So, too, is a degree of discretion in your dealings on- and off-line, since social engineering is among data thieves’ favorite tools.
Even if you’ve taken these steps, you can still fall victim to malware, ransomware, data breaches, and identity theft. If that happens, never forget that Barefoot Professional Investigations is standing by with a full suite of computer forensics and computer debugging services to get your life back on track!