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Properly Destroy A Credit Card

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Credit cards with bullet holesDo 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 were you to do with an expired card? You’d 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 strip on the back of the card. Not surprisingly, they contain the same information and are 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.

Destruction

The best way to destroy a credit card, though ecologically unfriendly, is to burn it. Credit cards are made primarily of plastic, polyvinyl chloride acetate (PVCA), 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 leech out, we’ll just skip that debate!

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

Disabling Magnetic Strip

Disabling the magnetic strip is fairly easy. Grab the strongest refrigerator magnet you have and rub it along the magnetic strip. Chances are the magnet will destroy the data on the strip. 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 RFID or a smart chip, you can destroy it by cutting it up or you can give it a good smash with a hammer beforehand. They need 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 the 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 afterwards, 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 the 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 a thief 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.

(Photo: baptistefranchina)

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32 Responses to “Properly Destroy A Credit Card”

  1. Man, sweet picture! Until I read this article, I didn’t realize that I might not be doing enough. I just cut once along the middle of the strip and then through the numbers as well. Then I think we cut the remaining 3 long strands in half. If I’m being honest, I think we dumped it in the same bag, too.

    Do you really cut it that many times?

    • Jim says:

      Yep, and I run a magnet from my whiteboard across the magnetic trip on the back (I don’t know if it’s strong enough but it can’t hurt!). I may not cut it quite as many times as the picture but I definitely cut the numbers that way and make at least two horizontal cuts across the magnetic strip. It really only takes like thirty seconds when you sit down to do it. It looks like a lot but it’s really not.

  2. Caitlin says:

    I used to just cut them up into dozens of tiny crisscrossing cuts and then dump them into multiple garbage bags. Then I got a nice cross-cut shredder that also handles credit cards and CDs, though I haven’t had an expired credit card since then to really try it out (though I did run my expired driver’s license through it and it worked great)

  3. Eric says:

    I just cut mine by hand too, making sure that the name, numbers, and strip are destroyed. I admit I get paranoid so most of the times they end up in tiny, tiny pieces.

  4. Andrew says:

    The Economist said last week that the value of credit card numbers is going down because there are so many available. They are now going for as little as 50 cents each.

  5. auntiemichal says:

    To further foil the dastards fishing in your trash, throw out the pieces over several weeks (or months if you have monthly pickup). As an alternative, throw some pieces away in random trash cans (relatives, friends, work, etc).

  6. Anthony says:

    I haven’t started doing it yet (no expired cards in a while), but I plan on shredding the cards. Multiple times, if possible. Then separating the shreds into different trash cans on different days.

    I had a friend that had her identity stolen. Like Jim said, you’ll only spend a minute or two to destroy the card. It’ll take weeks or months trying to get your identity fully back.

  7. Modder says:

    Good point on credit cards, but what do you do with paper work?

    All my experiences with shredders from Staples etc have been disappointing. The damn things don’t have enough oomph to shred more than a 5-6 sheets of paper at once and then they crap out after a mere 200-300 sheets.

    I have burned thru 3 shredders this way in the last 2 years, each one more expensive that its predecessor (in the dumb assumption that paying more would buy me quality), all with a security level that was not really satisfying (nothing some patient criminal couldn’t piece together).

    I am loath to buy another one.

    I don’t have a full fire place (just one of those silly gas ones), but I do have a gas grill. Maybe I should buy a steel box into which I can stuff the paper, seal the box semi-airtight and then leave on the grill on high for a couple hours. This way it will turn into leafy charcoal with little smoke development (burning it outright would piss of neighbors and fire dept). Then give the charcoal a stir with a stick to break-up the physical structure and then chuck in the trash.

    I can already hear my wife’s eyes rolling.

    You guys have a better suggestion?

    • Jim says:

      Yeah my shredder has been having problems too lately, I use WD-40 on it but I can’t do more than a page or two. I don’t really know what the suggestion is… sometimes, when it’s a lot of paper to shred, I burn it in our fireplace (I’ve only done this once but it was like 400 pages of old credit card and cell phone statements).

      • mapgirl says:

        Just call me Fawn Hall. I love to shred because I am not paperless w/my bills and statements.

        I destroy regular paper shredders quite easily.

        I plunked down about $200 for a waist high *continuous* shredder that takes 7 sheets at a time. ‘Tis teh aw3s0m3. It’s the first shredder that I have overheated, but not broken in the 2 years I’ve had it. Most others aren’t worth a damn.

        This shredder is bigger than a college dorm fridge, but worth it because it will shred a credit card and whole envelopes of crap without you having to tear stuff apart.

        FYI – Burning ink can be hazardous to your health and the environment because many laser printer inks are actually a form a plastic. I wouldn’t do that.

  8. nrm says:

    I have a cat and the pieces of expired cards get added in with the dirty litter.

  9. Patrick says:

    Great picture of where to cut. That’s pretty scary that people can still use cards even after they expire. More the reason to make sure we properly dispose of our credit cards.

  10. Posco says:

    I guess I’m not as paranoid. Although I did learn the credit card cutting procedure from my dad way back when I was in high school (including distributing the pieces across multiple trash cans), I only make the vertical cuts that you show. Since the mag-strip data is mostly stored horizontally across the strip, cutting it horizontally doesn’t actually destroy the data.

  11. Susie G says:

    Not that it matters – but in that illustration each set of four numbers is cut into 9 pieces.
    :-)

  12. CJ says:

    Paranoia

  13. I cut mine into tiny pieces, but I’ve never thought to deactivate the strip.

  14. rettilps says:

    I cut mine up very similarly to you and put them into multiple trash containers too! It’s nice to have conformation for what you are already doing. But your instructions are nice and thorough. Lately I’ve been burning them in the woodstove and I was wondering how bad it is for the environment. Thanks for the good blog!

  15. smartman says:

    I have a crosscut shredder and when I need to cut a card, I insert it in an angle rather than straight in. If you have rfi engaged chip, hit it with a hammer before deposing the card in the shredder. Next time when my shredder goes out, I plan to get a diamond cut shredder, as it will cut paper into tiny diamond confetti papers.

  16. scottr says:

    Slightly off-topic, but…
    How does one tell if their credit card has an RFID chip in it.

  17. Wumingren says:

    I used to work in foreign intelligence and everything was classified at the highest levels. We didn’t shred anything. We burned it all in an incinerator instead. And that’s what I do with all my old financial documents and cards. If you live in the country, you more than likely have a burn barrel. If you live in the suburbs, you might be able to have a backyard fire pit. Just make sure you have a good, hot fire going and burn one card at a time, so you don’t generate obnoxious smoke. If you live in the city, make friends with someone who has a burn barrel in the country.

  18. Koopla says:

    My local Office Depot has a big shredder that I used for the first time. Its a lot better than trying to feed the stuff through my 10-page home shredder. It cost me only $3 or 4 to shred stuff that I had gathered over about 6 months. You can call and ask them for the rate (per pound). I shred the checks sent by the credit card companies. That’s all I have.
    Now I have 20 credit cards to shred and I don’t want to pass them through my home shredder although it does have a slot for it. It works hard when it does that and maybe that effects the blades (cross shred). I gotta find another way.

  19. Ivy says:

    I have this credit card and I had never use it since I’m having second thoughts so, I called the bank and asked to cancel my card. They told me that it’s been cancelled and not to forget to destroy it. Is it really necessary to cut the credit card into pieces even if it was cancelled already? (I’m thinking of keeping my cancelled credit card in my wallet)

  20. canadiano says:

    i literally just took mine to the range every time and had at ‘er. hollowpoints /really/ do the trick.

  21. PeegeJayEl says:

    Why not just soak the credit cards in acetone until they disintegrate?


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