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Jewish World Review Feb. 12, 2002 / Rosh Chodesh Adar, 5762

Lenore Skenazy

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Consumer Reports

The smoking gun of white-collar crime is making some folks very happy -- REMEMBER when crime investigators used to hunt for a shred of evidence?

Now they hunt for evidence of a shred.

The still-warm shredder has become the smoking gun of white-collar crime. A desk with a shredder next to the pen set looks about as innocent as a pantry with a box of rat poison next to the pancake mix.

The reason for the shredder's soaring profile is, of course, Enron - the gutted energy company that has proved a veritable gusher to political cartoonists, most of whom seem to have spent the past few weeks figuring out how to morph Enron's sideways "E" into something resembling a shredded document.

David Joachim, for one, could not be more pleased.

"These are great times for the shredding industry!" says the marketing director for Royal Consumer Information Products, a New Jersey company that makes - surprise - shredders. It sold a million of them last year and expects demand to keep surging in '02.

Thanks to Enron, "everyone's looking at shredders," Joachim says. That's the kind of publicity money can't buy.

Or at least, clean money can't. And that's the problem. Document destruction is getting such a bad rap that the industry has adopted a new mantra: "Shredders don't shred documents. People shred documents."

Cute. But what exactly do they shred them with?

The largest shredders today can pulverize 19 tons of paper an hour. That's a whole lotta little pink "Mr. Bush returned your call" notes.

At the other end of the spectrum, small, $30 shredders are selling like hot plates: a simple appliance no home should be without. These are used by ordinary people to destroy credit card receipts, medical records and other personal information that could be used in identity theft.

Meantime, companies big and little are signing up for new mobile shredding services: shredding teams that swing by and shred on a regular basis.

But why? Does everyone have something to hide?

Well ... maybe not. But just in case, lawyers are advising their clients to shred early and often. This has led to a complete turnaround in corporate culture: Companies that once stored papers for years on the off chance some dispute could arise now shred those papers for the very same reason. If a CEO can swear, "We destroy our records regularly!" his postsubpoena shredding party won't look quite as suspicious.

Or so he hopes. But the fact is, shredding and subterfuge seem to have gone hand in hand ever since Watergate.

G. Gordon Liddy, mastermind of that botched burglary, ordered everything connected with it shredded - including $100 bills from contributors. When word of this got out, shredder sales (and probably some campaign contributors) went through the roof.

Shredders took the limelight again in 1979, when Iranian students besieged the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Americans hurriedly trying to destroy secret documents used "spaghetti shredders" that left the paper in long strips.

These were pieced back together by local carpet weavers, and the reconstituted documents eventually were published as a book in Iran.

Which brings us to today's more popular - and thorough - confetti-type shredder, a device that Enron probably should have invested in. Instead, the company cheaply slashed a bunch of secret papers horizontally, leaving whole sentences as easy to read as fortune cookie fortunes - and just as amusing.

As Confucius said: He who seeks to hide fortune should use better shredder.

JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.


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12/13/01: Palm Pilot or Calendar? Paper Wins
12/07/01: The gift of 9/11
12/03/01: Altria Is Really Smokin'

© 2002, New York Daily News