Know How to Safely Discard Outdated Electronic Devices

january 05, 2022 | identity theft
Know How to Safely Discard Outdated Electronic Devices

If you're the lucky recipient of a new phone or tablet, congrats! But don't forget about your old device in a rush to take your shiny new one for a test drive.

Unwanted devices could be recycled, traded in, regifted or sold. The method you choose to ditch outdated gear matters greatly; a wrong move could compromise your identity, privacy, and the environment.

Stop for a minute and consider the data you store on your smartphone or laptop. Do you want it in the hands of a thief? Media reports in the last decade have detailed stories of the damage that results if digital devices aren't recycled properly. Discarded tech often travels around the world packed full of personal or business data. The results can be staggering.

Notable Abuses

When the FBI or Secret Service shows up at your business to discuss a data leak, it's never good news. First, it means that your data has leaked. Second, it means there is often an intricate scheme already in place to monetize that data.

In 2013, for example, the FBI notified officials in Harris County, Texas, that agents had uncovered data for 16,000 current and former workers. The information for employees in the greater Houston area was at least five years old when found. Still, it included "names, Social Security numbers, birth dates and hiring dates of Harris County employees," according to an agency statement.

What was most stunning? The data had turned up in Vietnam, a popular destination for electronic discards. The operating theory was that personal details were found on recycled devices that weren't wiped clean before disposal.

The Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN) buried GPS trackers in discarded computers and unwanted TVs several years later. The trick let them trace devices to an area recycler who claimed no products would ever be shipped overseas. Instead, BAN employees watched as those devices were loaded onto ships bound for Hong Kong and an uncertain future.

Obvious Sources

Finding the right recycling approach can be a challenge. First, understand how hackers get their hands on your gear. Have you ever sold a device on Craigslist or eBay? Maybe you prefer social media like or Facebook Marketplace to sell discards. Unfortunately, hackers can purchase used equipment cheaply, and these gadgets often change hands still loaded with data.

For example, in 2019, a British university purchased used smartphones on eBay and found that one in five contained data they could trace back to the prior owner.

Sometimes e-trash recycling firms can be a source of discarded data, or a local company offers to recycle unwanted electronics. The offer may come with a promise to shred your hard drive. But how would you know if they followed through with that promise?

Exchanging unwanted gear for cash should not be the only goal; you need a more detailed plan.

Shield Yourself

The current push to recycle electronics focuses primarily on keeping tons of copper, lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic out of soil or groundwater. The disposal of devices in landfills has already been banned in several states. That's good news for the environment, but users who don't know the risks of data recovery should also bone up on this subject to manage the risk of data falling into the hands of con artists.

Software tools on the web can help wipe equipment effectively. You should check the details. If only the pointers that map out file locations get deleted, hackers can crack the device and review the actual data files.

IDShield is a product of Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc. d/b/a LegalShield (“LegalShield”). LegalShield provides access to identity theft protection and restoration services. IDShield plans are available at individual or family rates. For complete terms, coverage, and conditions, please see an identity theft plan. This is meant to provide general information and is not intended to provide legal or tax advice, render an opinion, or provide any specific recommendations.

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