On a recent episode of the NBC-TV sitcom Whoopi, Whoopi Goldberg's character had her identity stolen and her friend was shocked -- not that a 58-year-old man was passing himself off as her, but that she doesn't shred.
As more Americans are discovering, tearing up credit offers and canceled checks into tiny pieces by hand doesn't cut it any more.
With thieves, sometimes derided as Dumpster divers, willing to dig through coffee grounds and rotting food to retrieve bits of personal financial information, a shredder has become a must, identity theft experts say.
"That is the safe way to minimize your risk," said Jay Foley, co-executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego. "Eventually, everyone will have one."
A growing number of identity thefts and high-profiled victims, including Microsoft Corp. chairman and founder Bill Gates, have fueled a demand for shredders.
According to a recent study by the Federal Trade Commission, almost 10 million Americans a year are victims of identity theft.
While industry figures on personal shredder sales are unavailable, retailers report an upsurge. Office supply giant Staples Inc., for example, sold 1.3 million shredders in 2003 -- up 63 percent from the previous year.
"It's the one electronic that most people realize they need and don't have," said Karen O'Neil, a Staples spokeswoman.
The most popular models, ranging from $50 to $100, sold particularly well during the holidays, she said.
"It's a safe gift," she said. "It's what to get for the person who has everything."
It may also be the gift for the young crowd. Twenty-eight percent of identity theft complaints to the FTC last year came from 18- to 29-year-olds, the most of any age group. Students' college ID numbers are often the same as their Social Security numbers, making them easy targets for paper thieves, Foley said.
It won't be long before a shredder becomes the standard gift for high school graduates, who will head off to college with a "laptop under one arm and a shredder under the other arm," Foley predicted.
Home shredders range from about $30 to $200. Models have improved in recent years as identity thieves have gotten more sophisticated. If you're buying one, choose a model that "cross cuts" paper, or dices it up into confetti, experts advise. Stripped-cut models produce long-strings of paper that thieves have been known to paste together.
Higher-end models allow you to pulverize several pieces of paper at a single time, and can even chew up compact discs, credit cards and floppy discs.
What to shred? "Anything that contains personal identity information," Foley said.
Old checks and bank statements, outdated tax information, credit-card offers and convenience checks from card issuers. Pulverize documents with your Social Security number before throwing them away, including medical papers that you no longer need. Grind up old credit cards, too.
Some advocate tearing off address labels on magazines. A bit paranoid? One can never be too careful, experts maintain.
"How many vacation days in 600 hours?" asked Foley. That's how much time it can take to clear up a serious case of theft, Foley said.
What if you can't afford a shredder? Then remove identifying information from documents and spread it across separate trash cans so thieves can't connect the information, suggested John Featherman, who runs a privacy consulting firm in Philadelphia.
The trend is convincing some shredding contractors that previously dealt only with offices to branch into consumer service.
Secure-Shred of Easton, Md., operates a mobile shredder that travels to businesses and government offices. The company has gotten so many shredding requests from individuals that it plans to open a storefront location where people can bring in a box of up to 35 pounds of paper to be turned into confetti for $15, said Denise Anderson, the company's co-owner.
When clearing out cartons of old financial papers from the basement or attic, Anderson said, "you don't want to sit there and use one of those little shredders."
Be forewarned: Once you start shredding, it can be addictive. Maybe it's the whirring sound, or the satisfaction of tidying up, some say.
"It is satisfying," said Greg Carrillo, product manager with General Binding Corp. in Skokie, Ill., one of the largest shredder manufacturers. "You take one form of a product and convert it into something else -- you're a manufacturing facility. Knowing you don't have to worry about confidential information being out there, that in itself is peace of mind."