Are Your Files Safe If Disaster Strikes?

With hurricane season upon us, the Fool wants you to be ready for anything. We've got lots of useful advice to help you prepare in case disaster strikes.

Do a Google search on protecting your important documents and you'll find lists, lists, and more lists of "essential" papers you should grab when fleeing your home. The most common suggestion for protecting your paperwork is to put it all in one file or file box so you can haul it away when disaster strikes. But is paper what you really want to be thinking about when your home is burning down or the flood waters are rising?

Paper has some major limitations. Paper:

  • is heavy
  • takes up a lot of space
  • is easily damaged or destroyed
  • can get outdated very quickly
  • can offer thieves everything they need to steal your identity (particularly if stored in one "convenient" place).

Suffice it to say, counting on paper to survive a disaster can be shortsighted.

By the same token, you can't afford to be blase when it comes to your paper trail. Your important documents are what will help you -- post-disaster -- to rebuild your life. You need them to establish your identity, file for insurance claims, access money, and obtain copies of other important records that may have been lost. And that's just regarding your personal life. If you're a professional who is obligated to maintain records indefinitely on behalf of your clients (lawyers, counselors, doctors, etc.), you have extra incentive to put safety first when it comes to documents.

Your important papers are in a safety deposit box at the local bank, you say? That can be a great back-up for emergencies that hit just your home, but in the case of natural disasters that wipe out entire communities (there are countless stories of lost documents, ranging from property deeds to birth, death, and marriage certificates, from those in the path of Hurricane Katrina, for instance), you may have a difficult time recovering your documents from the bank as quickly as you'd like, if at all.

Welcome to the 21st century
So what's better than paper? Saving your documents electronically.

It's time to let go of your paper-laden past and move into the digital age. Companies like Canon (NYSE: CAJ  ) , Kodak (NYSE: EK  ) , and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) have made it easy to get rid of your paper records. Here's the how and the why:

  • Scan your way to safety. One of the best ways to keep copies of your important papers is by using a document scanner. According to PC Magazine, to get a decent desktop scanner like Fujitsu's ScanSnap S500, you'll have to shell out around $500. In return, you'll be able to scan 18 one-sided pages per minute or 36 images per minute for two-sided documents. At these rates, it should take you just around three hours to scan between 3,000 and 5,000 pages of important information. If you don't have many documents or if $500 seems too steep, ask for scanning rates at your local copy store. Don't forget the added benefits of changing your documents into electronic format. You'll be able to access whatever data you digitize much more quickly and reliably than searching through a comparable amount of paper. You can also scan and store photos (think of taking photos of all of your valuables).
  • Make the information portable. No, we're not back to that handy-dandy file box. Save the information instead on a USB flash drive that, for just around $20, offers you enough space to replace untold banker's boxes' worth of paper. For a few dollars more, upgrade to a USB drive that allows you to encrypt the data (a must-do if a lifetime's worth of sensitive information is there). Only the person who knows the alphanumeric code can gain access. Make additional copies to keep with a relative or trusted friend out of state as a backup. Do upload your pictures to one of the free photo sites like Shutterfly or Flickr where they'll be accessible to you from any computer anywhere. You can also save them onto your USB drive for added protection.
  • Email yourself copies of your most essential documents. Of course, you have to make sure your email account is secure, but emailing yourself copies of select documents ensures that, even if your PC is destroyed in the calamity, you can access the file from anywhere.
  • Move your finances online. Not only is using Quicken or Microsoft Money a great way to get organized, it also allows you (in case of a disaster that destroys your records) to have a complete record of your bill-paying history. Use online bill-pay, too? Then you have contact information and account numbers for each of your accounts should disaster strike.

Preparing our paper-filled lives for emergencies isn't exactly something we all look forward to doing, but it's necessary. Make your preparations easy as pie by digitizing as you go. Integrating these processes into your everyday habits is the best way to save your important papers from a catastrophe.

Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool'sRule Your Retirement newsletter. She doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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