By Sophia Bennett January 22, 2014

Thanks to Edward Snowden and ever-changing rules for social networking sites, online privacy is very much on Americans’ minds these days. And, while some people may not care who sees the pictures of their cats or kids on Facebook, there is one area that everyone should be mindful of: keeping financial data and other personal information safe.

Identify theft happens when someone takes another person’s information and uses it for their own gain. Using someone’s credit card to make purchases or taking out a credit card in someone’s name are common examples. Identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in the U.S., and it has been for some time. That is due, at least in part, to how easy it is to access important data through electronic devices.

Think about how many important transactions are made on computers and tablets these days: Moving funds between bank accounts, buying household and consumer goods, submitting medical information to a doctor. Cookies in a computer’s browser may store credit card and social security numbers, and it does not take much tech savvy to find them and use them.

The list does not end there. If you store sensitive information in emails or apps, it is easy to access them on a smartphone. If you use a video game system to purchase games online, the machine may store your credit card information.

Companies have a similar concern. If computers used to store proprietary information and branding secrets fall into the wrong hands, it can be devastating to the business. If you store customer data on devices, it is not just your own privacy you need to worry about it. It is everyone you work with as well.

These are just a few examples of sensitive data storage. There are many others.

Consumer protection organizations have plenty of tips out there for avoiding identity theft, including shredding documents with personal information and not giving out your social security number over the phone or in emails. But, here is one that often gets overlooked: When you dispose of an unwanted electronic device, it is important to remove any personal data stored on it.

This is not quite as easy as it sounds. Simply erasing files from a device may thwart the low-level identify thieves, but it will not deter someone who knows how to recover the files — something that is easy to do with software that is available for free online. But, there are tools to help you protect your privacy from these would-be thieves as well.

Many electronics reuse and recycling companies can wipe confidential data from devices for you. In fact, many states with e-waste recycling laws require all vendors to follow government-approved guidelines for keeping people’s personal data safe.

Still, it will give you extra peace of mind if you take a few minutes and remove data yourself. This is particularly important if the device is likely to be reused. Reuse is always a higher use than recycling, so it is great to seek out reuse organizations if electronics are still in working condition. Many nonprofits give electronics to schools, use them as a training tool for underprivileged youth or people with disabilities or ship them to worthwhile nonprofits overseas. Free Geek, a nonprofit with chapters in a dozen cities, including Portland, Chicago, Toronto and Vancouver, is one great example.

To permanently delete information from a computer, check out this list of free downloadable software on the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection website.

Consumer Reports provides a handy guide for erasing data on other devices, including tablets and various video game systems.

ERI provides top-of-the-line data destruction services to ensure your personal information remains just that — personal. We use software destruction methods that meet U.S. Department of Defense and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) guidelines. Using a patented process, we can also physically shred hard drives and other technological devices to ensure data is completely destroyed. Naturally, all metals, plastics and other materials are recycled once this process is complete.

To give you and your clients additional peace of mind, ERI can send you a live video feed of your sensitive information being destroyed. In all cases we provide clients with certificates of destruction. Not only do these certificates let you know data has been successfully destroyed, but they also assure you the waste has been dealt with lawfully and ethically.

A friendly reminder: Be sure to back up any files, photos, contacts and other personal information before wiping the device. It is expensive and disruptive to deal with identity theft, but it is also heartbreaking to lose years of photos, files and personal contacts. A portable hard drive or flash drive makes it easy to back up files and transfer them to a new machine.