Dumpster Diving for Investigations


What is Dumpster Diving?

In the most basic sense, dumpster diving is going through the trash to find items of value. Of course, what is considered valuable varies significantly from person to person. People dive into dumpsters and sift through garbage for many different reasons. For example, some search through other people’s trash to find food, clothing, and items to build a shelter. However, others look for discarded treasures like money, jewelry, etc. You know the old saying, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Technique Used by Private Investigators

Sometimes, private investigators use the dumpster diving technique to sort through the trash, or other discarded materials, of individuals, businesses, and even large corporations. However, rarely is this technique used during a routine background check. Instead, it is a technique that PIs can use in certain circumstances. The goal is to find information that may be useful in a private investigation case. For example, you may find the following types of information to be helpful:

  • Documents containing personal information such as names, addresses, phone numbers, and even social security numbers.
  • Correspondence, such as emails and/or letters between individuals, companies, etc.
  • Receipts from debit and credit card transactions
  • Copies of phone bills that provide a record of incoming and outgoing phone calls
  • Bank statements and other financial information that show payments, money transfers, investments, and more
  • Photographs, videotapes, screenshots
  • Electronic equipment such as hard drives, USB keys, and other storage devices

Thieves and Hackers

Unfortunately, thieves also use the same technique to look through garbage to find and steal valuable information, data, and intellectual property. Thieves view the trash as an easy target. For example, they don’t have to break into a building or a car. In most cases, the trash receptacle is accessible after hours, and most people don’t even pay attention to their trash. Thieves, hackers, and those with the evil intent search for data and information they can use to potentially infiltrate a company’s security or hack into its computer network.

Many large corporations spend millions of dollars securing their buildings and computer networks. However, many companies, especially small businesses, overlook the dangers of exposing sensitive company data and information in their trash. Experts agree that dumpster diving is a legitimate threat to business data.

Sometimes, a data breach can occur simply because an employee failed to shred a sensitive document before throwing it in the trash can. As a result, the information ends up in a trash receptacle, which thieves can steal.

Technically, dumpster diving is legal in all 50 states. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was legal. However, individual states may pass laws making it illegal. If you’re an investigator considering searching someone’s trash for information, here are a few things to consider:

  • Know the local laws for the jurisdiction where you plan to search
  • Is the trash receptacle on public property? In many states, the process is only legal if the dumpster is on public property. Otherwise, you may be guilty of breaking multiple laws, including trespassing.
  • Is the garbage area secured behind a gate or other structure? Is the dumpster or trash can locked? This can play into the legality of your search.
  • Is it worth asking the property owner for permission? Sometimes, a property owner may not care if you look through their trash can to find discarded items. However, having the owner’s blessing may not necessarily mean you have the legal right to do so. In any case, proceed with caution.

To reiterate, the laws vary considerably from one jurisdiction to another. So, private investigators must know the laws in the specific area where the “dive” will take place.

How to Protect Your Personal and/or Business Information

Your personal information is valuable whether you are a business owner or just a regular citizen. Things you can do to safeguard your data and information:

  • Stop (or reduce) the amount of paper you print. Not only will this be good for the environment, but it is a great way to protect your intellectual property. The less you print, the lower the chance that something sensitive ends up in your waste bin.
  • Buy a shredder. Shred all your sensitive documents such as medical records, bills, etc.
  • Install security cameras in the trash receptacle area at your home and/or business. Not only will the cameras serve as a deterrent, but the cameras may also help you identify the thief.
  • If you see someone looking through the trash of a home or business, report it to the local police. If you work for the company, report it to your security staff or management.

If you have any questions or comments about dumpster diving, please post a comment below.

To learn more, visit this Wikipedia page.

Michael Kissiah is the owner of Brandy Lane Publishing, LLC, which owns and operates a small portfolio of websites, including eInvestigator.com. Michael created eInvestigator.com more than 20 years ago after working as a private investigator in the state of Florida. Since that time, he has become an expert at how to find information online and has written over 1000 articles on topics related to the investigation industry. In addition, he is the author of the "Private Investigator Licensing Handbook", available at Amazon.com.


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