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Tidying up

Attorney Brett Verona takes the matter of protecting his clients' identity very seriously.

He keeps all client paper files in a locked cabinet in his Tampa law office. Those headed to the trash bin are shredded first.

At day's end, he locks the cabinet, sets the office alarm and locks the doors. Re-entry to the building requires a key card. Computer files are backed up daily, and the disks are placed in his bank's safe-deposit box every Friday. Eventually, almost every file in the office will be scanned, digitized and password-protected.

Whether they're clients of his private law practice or of Ideal Image, the franchise laser hair removal centers that Verona runs in south Florida, people expect stringent protection of their confidential information, he says.

"It just needs to be done to protect client security and keep us as an ongoing business," says Verona. When Hurricane Charley approached, he moved computers to a windowless interior room in his office. He shuttled boxes of files to an off-site, climate-controlled facility.

Nationally, 500,000 people were victims of consumer fraud or identity theft in 2003, resulting in more than $437 million in losses, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Small businesses are often the target of identity thieves. And owners are increasingly expected to guard not only business records, but client and employee documents. Attorneys, accountants and other professionals have to guard client financial records. Like major hospital chains, small doctor offices have to ensure patient confidentiality. And any employer has to shield employee records.

Such diligence can be a challenge, says Karen Unger, president of Fort Lauderdale-based American Document Management Group.

Document management also aids in disaster recovery. Following the hurricanes, companies lost or were left without access to important documents, says David Rosenbaum, managing director of Mallah, Furman and Co. in Miami. The firm offers its clients The Vault, a hosted, web-accessible document scanning and storage service.

"Being able to quickly locate necessary papers and documents is a source of anxiety during any time of crisis," Rosenbaum says.

Review recent documents to see which should be sent off to storage and which can be digitized -- and then destroyed. While the volume of paper to be stored may seem daunting, it amounts to less than 3% of a small business's paper volume, says Unger.

The rule of thumb for which papers to keep? "Anything that if it went missing could get you in trouble," she says.

KEEP OR DITCH?
Consider these document-management rules:

Store it.
Keep original documents with signatures or documents that cannot be replaced (employment or lease agreements, personnel records, tax returns, etc.) and digitize and destroy others.

Shred it.
Shred unneeded documents. Cross-cut shredders can be bought at most office supply stores. Companies with large volumes of documents to destroy can hire a company that will dispatch a vehicle to shred paper.

Get it.
Storing data on password-protected hosted sites provides secure accessibility from the office or the road. Some sites include Connected.com, Backup.com or BigVault.com.

Change it.
Change computer or website passwords regularly.

Legitimize it.
Create a corporate document retention policy -- based on industry standards or legal requirements so employees know how long to keep certain client files, papers or even e-mails before deleting or destroying them. In a lawsuit or criminal case, not having a document because you followed company policy may be acceptable, says Karen Unger, president of American Document Management Group.