April 5, 2007 in Voices

Shredding nation

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jed Conklin photo

Allen Garrwas, left, and Dave Castillo, employees of DeVries Business Records, shred sensitive documents.
(Full-size photo)

No patient of Wesley Stone’s ever had to worry about “Dumpster diving,” that is the risk that some felon routing through the dentist’s trash would steal their identity.

Stone, it turns out, seldom threw anything away, a comforting assurance to those who allowed him to finger their bicuspids, a maddening reality for Mrs. Stone who put up with the clutter.

When word came over the TV two weeks ago that a local paper shredding company was grinding up documents for charity, Stone’s wife pushed him out the door almost before he had his morning coffee. Doing so, she liberated herself form a half century of junk.

“They’re patient records, about 52 years old,” said Stone, standing beside a massive shredder waiting for his turn to grind. He wasn’t the only one.

A Spokane County Sheriff’s Office deputy brought by a laptop computer, and an aging PC with information tucked into its circuitry that was just too risky to toss in the trash. An elderly woman pulled along side the shredder, parked outside the Wishing Star Foundation in East Central Spokane, popped her trunk lid and produced eight grocery bags of old bills. The one’s in the bottom of the bag dated back to 1977 and the Jimmy Carter presidency. In a matter of minutes it was nothing but confetti.

“We used to hold onto things for years. We’d just throw them in big box,” said Patrick DeVries, whose company, DeVries Information Management is one of seven local businesses specializing in document destruction. There were only two listed in the phone book a decade ago. “Now we tell people to use a smaller box.”

America has become a shred nation with real concerns about identity theft and privacy shaping the way we shop, communicate at work, go to the doctor and even throw our garbage out.

Consider this: Each year for the last three years, household shredder sales have gone up more than 15 percent and industry experts expect sales to jump 20 percent per year for the next five years as consumers respond to threats of identity theft and a federal tightening of privacy laws. As a whole, business and home shredder sales are thought to be nearly $400 million annually, according to the School and Office Products Association.

Specialized document destruction companies, like DeVries, now number 2,000 in the United States.

Shred culture got its first big shot in the arm in the 1990s when Congress began drafting laws to protect people’s privacy at the doctor’s office. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, made it illegal for anyone involved in the medical profession to disclose patient information without consent. The resulting clampdown was so severe some clinics leaving a checkup reminder on a patient’s answering machine won’t identify the patient by name or the doctor, for fear of violating federal law.

The ensuing document destruction had made the medical industry one of the top shredding clients in the area, according to document managers.

But after taking on privacy in the doctor’s office, Congress tackled employee privacy with a law so broad few employers realize their affected. Since 2005, all private employers have been required to destroy any personnel information before throwing it out. The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, or FACTA, exposes businesses to a $2,500 fine for each undestroyed document and allows civil lawsuits by workers whose personnel information was merely trashed. The law pretty much applies to anyone who pays another person to do a job. Someone who hires a nanny for the children or a yard worker to routinely mow their lawn must abide by FACTA.

“For a lot of people, even if they don’t realize it, it’s the law,” DeVries said.

But to really appreciate the degree to which society goes to chew its paper trail into oblivion, all one had to do is go on a paper run with Alan Gallwas and David Castillo. Monday through Friday, the two men roll out of the DeVries warehouse in mobile paper shredder the size of Ryder Truck. Theirs is the Lamborghini of document destruction, a Shredfast PTS 333, capable of chewing through 5,000 to 6,000 pounds an hour.

The first offices on their rounds are destroying office records stored in seemingly ordinary 35-gallon trash bins, except that the bin lids are padlocked shut. The only people who ever open the bins are Gallwas and Castillo. Privacy protocol requires that office workers feed all documents into the bin through a small slot in its lid. Once a document is in the bin, there’s no getting it out.

Gallwas and Castillo roll the bins to the curb and feed them onto the hooks of the mobile shredder, which raised the bins into a chute that’s vacuumized to prevent any paper from blowing away. Gallwas then uses a video-game-style joystick, hidden in a truck side panel to work the bin through the shedding process. A small TV screen mounted above the joystick allows Gallwas to watch the shredder’s teeth chew the documents to bits. When he’s done, he’ll go back inside the business and issue the company a “certificate of destruction,” indicating everything in the bin has been destroyed.

“There’s about 200 pounds per bin” Gallwas said, loading another bin onto the shredders destruction track. On the video screen in front of him, one can see multiple-choice-style testing sheets, the kind children fill out with No. 2 pencils, being fed to the shredding blades. As the sheets come out the other end of the shredder, they’ve been torn into bits maybe a fourth the size of a postage stamp.

“The finest setting is hammermill, which is basically dust,” said Jerry Curtis, spokesman for Shredfast mobile shredders. Hardly a household name in the Spokane region, the Airway Heights business is regarded as an industry icon in the world of shredding manufacturers. In January, the company caught the eye of New Yorker magazine, which called it “the Orange County Choppers of the shredding world.”

A $200,000 price tag on a Shredfast truck isn’t unheard of. In addition to paper, the vehicles have been used to chew up shoes and clothing deemed unsellable by manufacturers, data disks, video tapes and even laptop computers.

The business was founded in 1998 by Dave Rajewski, whose business roots were in agriculture. According to Curtis, Rajewski sensed a niche market developing for mobile shredders. In less than a decade, the company went from doing business in a pole barn to setting up shop in a 36,000-square-foot building. Its trucks are sold internationally.


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