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How to properly destroy a credit card

Simply tossing it could put you at risk of ID theft.

By Karen Datko Sep 27, 2009 2:40AM
This post comes from Jim Wang at partner blog Bargaineering.

Do you know why credit cards have an expiration date? In the beginning, it was because a credit card had a limited useful lifespan. After a few years, the magnetic stripe on the back would either get demagnetized or damaged so much that it was unreadable.

It wasn't until later that the expiration date was used as a security feature. For many years, you could continue to use expired credit cards because the stripe was fine and the expiration date wasn't used for verification.

So what are you to do with an expired card? You have to destroy it, of course. In our age of identity theft and fraud, only a fool would throw a credit card into the trash without cutting it up first. However, with the economy the way it is and the value of credit card numbers going up, it's important to properly destroy a credit card.

There are two crucial parts of a credit card -- information embossed on the front of the card and the information encoded in the magnetic stripe on the back of the card. Not surprisingly, both locations contain the same information, which is merely displayed differently to the typical "reader." When you want to destroy a card, it's important to destroy both sources of information, and this article will explain how.


The best way to destroy a credit card, though ecologically unfriendly, is to burn it. Credit cards are made primarily of a plastic, polyvinyl chloride acetate, and burning the stuff isn't good for the environment or you. It also contains all manner of dyes, inks, holograms, metal, etc.

One could argue whether it's better for plastic to be burned into toxins in the air or dumped into the ground where the toxins can leach out. We'll just skip that debate.

If you aren't going to burn it, the next best solution is to disable the magnetic stripe and cut it up.

Disabling magnetic stripe. Disabling the magnetic stripe is fairly easy. Grab the strongest refrigerator magnet you have and rub it along the magnetic stripe. Chances are the magnet will destroy the data on the stripe. If you're concerned that the magnet isn't strong enough, let me assure you that cutting it up will probably be enough to mess it up anyway.

Disabling RFID/smart chips. If your credit card has an RFID or smart chip, you can destroy it by cutting it up or you can give it a good smash with a hammer beforehand. It needs to be intact to be operational so the act of cutting it up will destroy it.

Cutting/shredding the card. The next best way is to shred it. Unless your shredder has a special card shredder, I'd recommend against using a shredder because the teeth aren't designed for the more rigid plastic of a credit card. My card-destruction strategy is to cut each set of four numbers into six pieces. Here's a picture of a Visa Black Card with red lines indicating where I cut:

The set of cuts at the top of the card are designed to dice up the magnetic stripe. The cuts at the bottom of the card are designed to cut up the numbers into the six pieces I alluded to earlier. For the middle area, I take that piece afterward, flip it over, and cut it so my signature is illegible and the CVV number (the three-digit number) is destroyed.

Disposal. Now that you have a pile of plastic pieces, separate it into two or three piles and throw them in separate garbage bags. If you do that, it's extremely unlikely thieves will be able to put it back together again. Even if they were to get all the pieces, they're more likely to go after easier targets.

This may seem like a lot of work, but when you actually do it, you'll find it takes less than a minute. Recovering your identity and dealing with credit card fraud takes much longer.

Related reading at Bargaineering:

What is a good credit score?

Change your credit card due dates

How to get an Experian credit score

Published May 12, 2009



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