How to secure and wipe your devices clean before you get rid of them

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How to secure and wipe your devices clean before you get rid of them
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For the majority of Americans, technology is now at the center of pretty much everything we do, so much so that it’s difficult to even imagine life without all the added convenience and instant access.

But as technology gives us more ways to access, share and store information, it’s becoming more and more difficult to protect that information.

Your stuff is stored in a lot more places than you realize

Think about all the ways you use your smartphone or other devices on a daily basis — from phone calls, texts and emails, to banking, shopping, budgeting, social media and more. And with all of our gadgets going online, your personal information is accumulating and being stored in a lot more places than you likely even realize.

If you do most things online, then it’s safe to assume that your Social Security number, banking information, credit card number, passwords and other personal data has been stored somewhere at some point. Paying bills online, shopping, mobile banking, communicating with your doctor’s office — all of these things typically require some piece or pieces of your sensitive information.

So when it comes time for an upgrade, whether it’s a smartphone, tablet, laptop or other device, it’s crucial that you remove all of your personal information before you sell or recycle it. If you don’t, your sensitive info can very easily fall into the wrong hands.

Most used gadgets sold online still contain sensitive personal data

When you upgrade to a new device, selling your old one (online or anywhere else) can be an easy way to make some extra cash. If you don’t sell it, maybe you decide to recycle, donate or trade it in.

You probably know that it’s a good idea to get your personal stuff off the device before handing it over to a stranger. But what many people don’t realize is that just deleting files isn’t enough to prevent someone from accessing your information that’s stored inside the device.

In fact, there are tons of used electronics being sold online every day that still contain the previous owner’s sensitive information.

The team over at NBC Nightly News recently bought a bunch of used devices online and had them analyzed to find out just how much personal data was left behind.

What they found was pretty scary.

Analysts discovered names, addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers and more information that was still stored inside the various types of devices. In one case, all of the information about a woman’s entire family was exposed — after she sold her laptop online without removing all the data.

Read more: Why you need to use 2-factor authentication on all accounts

How to wipe your devices clean before getting rid of them

Simply deleting things from your phone, tablet or other device isn’t enough to prevent hackers from accessing the information stored inside. In fact, according to Consumer Reports, basic data-recovery software can be just as easy to use as any basic software or app — and a lot of the programs are free.

So if you want to be sure that your data cannot be recovered, you have to take a few extra steps.

Before you reset: Back up your files 

  • The first thing you need to do is back up any content that you want to keep — photos, apps, files etc. If you back up everything to the cloud, make sure you also keep copies of everything on an external hard drive, just in case something crazy happens in cyberspace and you lose what you have saved in the cloud.
  • If you have a phone or tablet that contains a memory card or SIM card, make sure to remove it. These typically contain personal data, including photos, contacts and other information.
  • Once you save everything, log out of all accounts, including social media, bank accounts and any other account info you have saved on the device.
  • Write down the serial number of the device to keep for you records.

Read more: More and more hackers are targeting you via email, text & social media

Removing data from smartphones and tablets

Apple devices

According to Consumer Reports, iOS device data ‘should automatically be encrypted if you have a passcode (screen lock) enabled. The passcode is used to generate an encryption key, and when you factory-reset your phone, the passcode and encryption key are securely deleted. Any data that’s left behind is securely scrambled, and thereby inaccessible to all but the highest-level data-recovery experts.’

If you don’t have a passcode set up on the device, you can create one by going to Settings > Passcode or Touch ID and Passcode. Once you do that, encryption will be enabled. Then go back to Settings > General > Reset. After you click the confirmation that you want to remove/erase all data from the device, it will be safe to sell!

Here’s a detailed step-by-step guide from Apple on how to secure your device without losing any important data:

You shouldn’t manually delete your contacts, calendars, reminders, documents, photos, or any other iCloud information while you’re signed in to iCloud with your Apple ID. This would delete your content from the iCloud servers and any of your devices signed in to iCloud.

On your device with iOS 10, make sure that you sign out of iCloud before you erase your device.

After you’ve created a passcode and backed up your data — when you’re ready to reset the device, take these steps:

  • If you paired an Apple Watch with your iPhone, unpair your Apple Watch.
  • Back up your iOS device.
  • Tap Settings > iCloud. Scroll down and tap Sign Out. In iOS 7 or earlier, tap Delete Account.
  • Tap Sign Out again, then tap Delete from My iPhone and enter your password.
  • Sign out of the iTunes & App Store. Go to Settings > iTunes & App Store > Apple ID > Sign Out.
  • Go back to Settings and tap General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings. If you turned on Find My iPhone, you might need to enter your Apple ID and password.
  • If asked for your device passcode or Restrictions passcode, enter it. Then tap Erase [device].

Android devices

According to Consumer Reports, a lot of Android devices don’t support hardware-based encryption, ‘but you can enable encryption via software. Just know that encryption may slow your device’s performance, and it can’t be disabled without resetting your phone.’

Take these steps to secure and wipe your Android device clean:

  • Encrypt the device: This will scramble the data on the device and if the wipe doesn’t delete everything, an encryption key be will required to unscramble any data left behind.
  • To encrypt the device, go to settings > security > select encrypt phone (this may be located under different options on different devices).

warning how to erase personal data old devices
(Photo credit: CNET)

  • Do a factory reset: Go to settings > backup & reset > factory data reset. This will erase all data on the phone, so make sure everything is backed up before performing the reset.

warning how to erase personal data old devices
(Photo credit: CNET)

  • According to CNET, the first two steps of encryption and factory reset should be enough to secure your data and information. But if you want to add another layer of protection, once the device is wiped clean, go ahead and upload random photos and fake contacts that do not contain any personal info about you — this is phony content to throw off a hacker and hide any of your data potentially left behind.
  • Perform another factory reset: This will erase the fake content you just loaded onto the device — making it much more difficult for any hacker to find your data that may have been left behind, because it will be hidden by that fake content.
  • Still worried about your data? If you originally had very sensitive data on your device and you’re still worried about someone possibly being able to find it, you can add more fake content and do factory resets as many times as you’d like. That will just add more layers of protection. It’s not always necessary, but if you’re paranoid, you can add a few more layers of protection between the fake content and any of your data that may be buried deep down below.

Protecting your privacy

For most people, taking these steps should be enough to encrypt and secure your device before you sell, donate, trade it in etc. If you’re super paranoid and don’t care about selling or donating the device, you can always just destroy it and then not have to worry about it.

With any device, it’s crucial that you always take steps to secure your information both while you’re using it and before you plan to get rid of it. Check out this guide from Consumer Reports on wiping laptops and other devices clean.

More resources on protecting your information from hackers and thieves:

How to avoid malicious Android apps

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Alex Thomas Sadler About the author:
Alex is the Managing Editor of Clark.com and host of Common Cents, a series that makes money simple. By breaking down complicated concepts, Alex shows you how to better understand your money and make smarter decisions — so you can take control of your own life and future! Learn more here.
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