Protecting your loved one’s sensitive information

5 min read

Important steps to protect personal info

  • Any documents that must be kept should be in a secure, fireproof place, such as a safe.

  • Back up needed documents by scanning and storing in a hard drive and in the cloud.

  • Anything with personal information on it that can be thrown out should be safely disposed of. Shredding is the most popular method

  • To fully erase a hard drive, destroy it physically.

When a loved one passes away, there are often piles of documents that their family or executor must sift through in order to settle their estate. This can be a big task that some people find surprisingly emotional. It can also involve a lot of decisions about what to do with all those pieces of paper.

Some of your loved ones’ documents, like birth certificates, tax returns, and real estate deeds, are critical and will need to be saved. Many others can be discarded. Before you do so, however, check if they contain any sensitive personal information. If they do, you will have to do more than simply toss them in the recycling bin.

How to save documents

As with your own important personal documents, any of your loved one’s papers that need to be kept should be secured all together in a safe place. That might be a home safe, a fireproof metal box, or even a safe-deposit box that you can easily access.

There are some documents you will need to keep on hand in their original form, such as death certificates or property titles. If a copy of the document is sufficient, you may want to save space and lessen the piles of papers in your house by scanning it and keeping the image on an external hard drive or thumb drive. Make sure the images are encrypted and the drive is password protected, and keep the drive in a secure location. Back the drive up so you don’t have just one copy of these images, and consider a secure cloud storage location as well. (The Vault feature in the Empathy app can safely back up and organize these important documents so you always have them close at hand.)

Whatever you do, do not simply email yourself copies of these digital documents. Email is much less secure than these digital storage options.

Once you have secured all documents that should be kept, safely dispose of any paperwork with personal information on it so that it cannot be read.

Shredding documents

Shredding is the most common way to destroy documents. You can buy a home shredder for as little as $50, or ask a friend who has one if you can borrow theirs. A cross-cut shredder, which provides more security than a strip-cut one, will be more expensive. 

Home shredders tend to have limited capacity, and you will likely have to feed papers into the machine one by one to avoid clogging it. Though this can be an arduous (and noisy) chore, you are greatly minimizing the risk that sensitive information could be stolen. 

For a less expensive but more physically demanding option, use a pair of multi-cut scissors to reduce all of the papers to confetti.

Alternatively, you can outsource the shredding. Many shredding services will pick up your materials and dispose of them at their offices, or arrive at your doorstep with a portable machine in tow. Where you choose to shred, the total weight of the paperwork, and whether you are hiring them for a one-time job or on an ongoing basis will all affect the price. A one-time, at-home shredding date of some 10 boxes of paper may cost around $125; you’ll spend about $80 for the same amount of paper at an off-site service. 

You can also take the documents to a big box store or UPS, which often provide shredding services. This does slightly decrease the level of security, as your papers may sit around for some time until they are destroyed.

Finally, some community organizations will host periodic shredding events, often to benefit a local charity. Be sure to research such events as a cost-saving option.

Destroying electronics

For sensitive information on your loved one’s computer (or your own) that you need to get rid of, you will have to wipe your hard drive clean, which entails more than simply putting documents in the “trash.” Be advised that deleting data does not permanently remove it; unless it is erased from the hard drive, this information can be recovered with the right software.

To make sure the hard drive is clean, there are several options, depending on the level of security you need. You can restore the computer to original factory settings, which essentially means reinstalling the software. A reinstall necessarily includes overwriting the hard drive and wiping it clean, but the erased data may still be recoverable.

You can choose one of several free data-erasing programs, like DBAN, Freeraser, FileShredder, or WipeDisk, all of which are readily available online for download. Check your computer’s operating system to make sure the program you select is compatible with it. 

If you want to go a step further, you can unscrew the hard drive and take it apart physically. Once you have opened the hard drive, use a screwdriver or other sharp tool to scratch the disk and render it unusable should someone try to install the drive in a different computer and attempt to steal the data. You might also find instructions online for using rare earth magnets to corrupt the metal in the drive. 

Some document shredding services will also physically destroy hard drives for you. Check online for shredding services near you and to find out how much they charge. 

No matter what method you use to safeguard or discard your loved one’s documents, take time to make sure you categorize each document correctly and are careful to secure all the relevant information. Doing that properly now will help protect against any mishaps down the road.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.