A few years ago, George F. Hasiotis found three boxes along with some old carpeting in the parking lot of his West Seneca chocolate and candy company, Antoinette's Sweets. The boxes contained patient files with their diagnosis, history and other confidential details from a local psychiatrist's office.
"I called the psychiatrist to notify her," Hasiotis said. "She had recently remodeled her office and assumed that the contractor had left the old carpeting and file boxes on the curb for collection."
Hasiotis put the files and carpeting in his dumpster but was disturbed that the doctor hadn't been more careful.
"I shred everything," he said.
Many businesses are learning that they may be too careless with their trash. Just recently, Proctor & Gamble was fined and admitted that a contractor had gone through trash outside Unilever's Chicago office and obtained several confidential documents.
In addition to the threat of corporate espionage, some trash contains enough information for someone to carry out identity theft, such as account numbers and dates of birth. In January 1999, two Buffalo men were arrested for using bank information thrown into a dumpster to steal $25,000.
"People are throwing things away that they don't even think are valuable," said Kevin McNulty, president of DocuShred USA in Cheektowaga. "Even message pads that you throw away are leads for your competition."
The first step to ensure the privacy of a business and its customers is to have a policy about dealing with all the paper a modern office produces.
"There should be a corporate policy that covers how documents are handled, what should be kept, how long it should be kept, how it should be stored and how it should be disposed," said Ellen M. Reen, business intelligence manager for the Western New York Technology Development Center, an incubator in Amherst for small businesses.
Shredding is the most common way companies destroy documents, computer disks and other information.
ADT Security in Amherst had shredders next to the desks of many of its employees.
"We were continually buying those shredders and burning them out," said William F. Marusza, general manager of the Lawrence Bell Drive office. So six months ago, ADT hired Shred-it to destroy its documents, which can include information on a business' security system.
"It's much more efficient -- and quieter," Marusza said.
Shred-it in Amherst differs from other companies in that it brings its industrial-sized shredder in a trailer to the business.
Shred-it is more expensive than its competitors, but Michael Mills, general manager of the company, said it offers the advantage of the documents never leaving sight of the owners.
But either method can be more cost effective than having employees spend hours a month shredding information a few pages at a time.
Another option is incineration.
American Document Destruction Services of Grand Island burns paper, computer disks or outdated product for its customers. The materials are burned at 1,800 degrees for 45 minutes at the American Refuel Plant in Niagara Falls, said Ken Knight, president of American Document Destruction Services.
And because identity theft can occur just as easily at homes as it can at the office, Knight said starting this fall Grand Island residents can drop off documents for incineration for a small fee.
"If you had my Social Security number and address, you could go get a driver's license or credit card," Knight said.