Using Garbage to Get the Dirt

Going through garbage to obtain information might seem like the lowest possible form of investigating but don’t be fooled! Trash covers are a fantastic way to get to know your subject up close and personal. This is a tool commonly used by private investigators, but can also be useful in other detective jobs.

Is going through trash legal?

Yes. Very likely it is legal in your state. The law is pretty well defined that once a person sets his / her garbage outside the property, it is usually fair game for anyone.  (After a person has set out their garbage, the actual trash may be technically the property of the waste hauling company and / or of the municipal government, but these entities are not likely to care.) Watch that you are not trespassing on the person’s property that you are investigating, and, also it never hurts to check your state’s statutes.

What you can find in a person’s trash:

  • Back account information
  • Phone bills
  • Credit card statements (as well as actual credit cards)
  • Store receipts
  • Personal letters and cards
  • Payroll stubs
  • Medicine bottles
You name it, and it’s probably in their trash. And the best part is, no matter how wealthy, no matter now private the person is – they probably dispose of their trash like everybody else. A person’s garbage is like a recent snapshot of the their life.

Collecting the Garbage

Find out what days of the week the garbage is collected at the address by calling the private company or city who collects. Now, most people take out their garbage the night before collection. There are two ways you can collect it now. The first is to scope out your target’s house and buy identical garbage cans to theirs. Late at night (early morning), drive to their and swap cans. Put some other, less desirable (and untraceable!) garbage in the new bins so as to not raise suspicions. The other method for collecting the garbage is to simply place the garbage (before pickup) in your trunk, van, or truck and return the empty bin. Put down some plastic sheeting as residential garbage IS dirty!

And don’t forget the recycling. Among the recyclables, there could well be some important printed papers, letters, envelopes, and so on in there. (A benefit: recyclables are not as dirty as regular garbage to go through!)

Going through the Trash

Wear latex gloves, for protection and sanitary reasons. (Check at a building supply or hardware store, an excellent kind of glove have a latex coating on the working side – this both protects the wearer and provides good grip.) You could wear a mask, although that’s a personal choice. Dangers to watch out for include needles (for example, if there is a diabetic in the home), and things that you could be allergic to, such as foods or insects that could be in garbage. Have a nice open space to spread out the trash and a drying rack for soggy papers. Do this for several weeks or as needed and there’s a good chance you’ll find what you are looking for. Analyzing trash from business properties can also be useful.

Identity Theft and Prevention

This highlights the need for everyone to be careful of their identity, but of course, you as an investigator are on the other side of the issue! Even check shredded paper: you may find something. Sometimes shredders are worn and miss shredding the edges of paper (especially if people have been putting papers with staples through their shredders) and so not all the paper is cut. Also, some paper may have been inserted into the shredder the wrong way, and the cuts may be along the lines of type, and so can actually be read. It is not usually possible to reconstruct paper that has been shredded, but there are companies that can reconstitute shredded strips of paper. Of course, the increasing use of cross-cut shredders makes it virtually impossible to reassemble, so this is the kind of shredding you should do with your paper!

A Famous Case 

Several years ago a famous case in Canada illustrated several kinds of corporate espionage, and counter espionage. The case involved the two biggest airlines in the country, Air Canada and Westjet. Air Canada suspected that Westjet was electronically spying on them. So, they hired private investigators to spy on the West Jet employee that they thought was most likely involved. Investigators used various methods, including electronically tracing him, physically tailing  him, engaging him in “accidental” fake conversations to elicit information, and recording him. And, because the employee worked out of his home, the investigators also collected and then sifted through his personal trash. (The garbage exploits came to a head when a neighbor of the employee became suspicious of  a white van that kept showing up around garbage day.) Read more in The Gumshoe Who Stung Westjet.

Another Famous Case of “Waste”

During the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev in the Soviet Union (1964 – 1982), it was important for Western intelligence agencies to know as much as they could about him. At one point, Brezhnev was staying in a hotel in Copenhagen. The French intelligence agency rented the room below his, and took apart the walls and plumbing, and so were able to divert the flushings  from Brezhnev’s toilet on the floor above. Analyzing that waste provided clues to the health of the Soviet leader, and the resulting information was shared with the CIA.

In the Recent News

The recent financial meltdown was caused by lots of wrongdoing, but very little subsequent justice. Of the millions of Americans (bankers and customers) who participated in the “stated income loans” (better known as “liar loans”), only one person has gone to jail. That one person is Charlie Engle, who is now spending three years in jail. Unfortunately for Engel, he was a bit too much above the radar, and the government decided to make an example of him. An IRS agent happened to be watching a documentary about elite marathon runners and wondered about one of them, Charlie Engle. IRS agents subsequently went through Engle’s garbage, and then sent over a female undercover agent, to whom Engle confessed.

His father, Richard Engle, has called his son the “number one political prisoner of the IRS.” You can “trash” the government, but you should first watch your own “trash”!

See Also:

“Identity Theft” on

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