Erasing Digital Identity Crucial If Selling Gadgets

11:38 PM, Feb 25, 2013   |    comments
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Undated -- It seems like there's a new must-have gadget on the market every month. And if you're upgrading, you can make some quick cash by selling your old laptop, smart phone or tablet.

By now, you've likely heard of the importance of wiping your gadget's memory before you get rid of it. But when you do that, how much of your digital identity actually gets erased?

Tech expert Adam Gegg took a look at three secondhand electronics: a laptop, an iPhone 4 and an Android tablet.

Within minutes of getting his hands on the hard drive from the laptop, which was sold on Craigslist, Gegg got to know someone he's never met.

"Their photographs, their digital pictures, their iTunes, documents, bookmarks, everything," were still on the computer he said. "They run cross country, they're big into paint balling, they're Cardinals fans."

The homework he found on the laptop was harmless enough. But this is jaw-dropping: Gegg found a 2010 tax return.

"Their social security number, the amount of money they made, where they made it, where they live," would all be available, he said, if someone chose to open the return and use it to do wrong.

So how can you avoid an identity theft disaster if you're getting rid of your PC? Gegg says you should wipe the computer's hard drive and reinstall Windows. If that's too technical for you, sell the computer without the hard drive. You can easily unscrew it and destroy it.

"A hammer wouldn't do enough, but it's a step in the right direction," Gegg said. "You'd want to puncture it with a high-speed drill."

Gegg also took a look at a used iPhone 4. The previous owner had reset it. But did it work?

"Nothing, there's nothing to be found," he said. "Once you do the wipe there's no way to get the information back."

Gegg says the iPhone 4, 4s and 5 are all hardware encrypted. That means if you tap the "Settings" icon, then hit "General," "Reset" and "Erase all content and settings," you can sell your device worry-free.

If you have a SIM card in your phone, though, Gegg says you should take it out.

There's also good news about the secondhand Android tablet.

"The person you got this from did do some type of wipe of their personal data," Gegg said.

So, none of their private information was on the tablet. But Adam says Android buyers should beware. The tablet's memory card had 900 apps. And because Android apps aren't well-regulated, Gegg says those apps are sometimes schemes.

"It might be an application that looks like a calculator when in fact it's sucking your address book and sending it off to someone in another country," he said.

Gegg's bottom line: doing the "factory reset" on most tablets and phones should protect you. But as far as computers and laptops? If they're three or four years old, you won't make enough money selling them to justify the time and effort needed to wipe them clean.

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