What do you do with your old electronic devices? Because electronic waste can be hazardous when sent to landfills, it’s strongly recommended that you recycle your electronics instead. However, your personal information may be at risk if you don’t take precautions to protect it before disposing of these devices.

The National Association for Information Destruction (NAID) recently revealed the results of a study that showed that 40% of electronic devices being resold contain some type of personal identifiable information (PII). Examples of the PII that was extracted from these devices include credit card account information, usernames and passwords, tax information, and other personal data. If this information falls into the wrong hands, consumers may fall victim to identity theft.

The study did not look at every type of resold electronic—only smartphones, tablets, and hard drives were examined, since these devices are the ones that are most often used and discarded by consumers. Additionally, no complicated methods were used to extract the data, which means it would be fairly easy for someone to get their hands on this information.

Where was the data found? Personal information was recovered from 13% of smartphones, 44% of hard drives, and 50% of tablets. This marks an improvement from results of other studies done in the past, however that does not mean that consumers are getting smarter about protecting their data. Previous studies used more complex methods of extracting data and were therefore able to retrieve more of it. This study focused on more basic methods of extraction to show how easy it would be to retrieve personal information found on electronic devices being sold in the secondhand market.

This study highlights the importance of protecting your personal information on devices that you plan on disposing of, either by removing it yourself or choosing a company that you trust to remove it for you. Here’s how:

Back up your data

Before you begin to erase your data from your devices, it’s important to back it up so you don’t lose it forever. There are a number of different ways to back up your information, including transferring it to an external hard drive or flash drive.

If you’re getting rid of an Apple smartphone, you can also back up your information through iTunes. This is a simple process that involves connecting your smartphone to a computer and launching iTunes. All of your information will be transferred so you can erase it from your old phone and reload it onto a new smartphone.

Remove the memory card

Many smartphones and tablets have removable memory cards hidden underneath the battery cover. Although these memory cards are small, they can hold a lot of data. Your personal pictures, videos, emails, and other information could be stored on this memory card, so remove it prior to disposing of your devices.

Erase your information

Now, it’s time to erase your information from the device. Simply deleting all of your files on your laptop or desktop hard drive is not enough if you want to ensure that your personal information cannot be retrieved. If you own a PC, you should consider using a program that overwrites the data on your hard drive so it is no longer extractable. These programs allow you to choose how many times you want to overwrite the data. According to the Department of Energy, three times is sufficient, however the Department of Defense overwrites data at least seven times.

If you own an Apple laptop or desktop computer, you can use the built-in Disk Utility feature to erase your device.

To erase the information on a smartphone or tablet, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to perform a hard reset of the device. Apple users should visit Settings, then tap on General, and then Reset. Then, select the option to erase all content and settings. Once you do this, your phone will not contain any of your personal information. Instructions vary by device for Android, Windows, and Blackberry smartphones, so contact the manufacturer to learn how to perform a hard reset on your device.

Keep in mind, however, that information can often be recovered if it is merely erased via your device’s software.  

Choose a reputable company

Even if you think you have erased all of your information from your devices, it’s important to choose a reliable electronics recycler to ensure that any information that remains on your device will be destroyed. Before choosing an electronics recycler, ask about how they protect your information during the recycling process.

For example, ERI wipes devices  in accordance with DOD and NIST standards and/or sends them to the e-waste shredder. Clients also have the option of watching a video of the data destruction so they don’t have any doubts about what happened to their personal information. Find an electronics recycler that offers these types of guarantees so you know your information will not fall into the wrong hands after you dispose of unwanted devices.

You can also look for a company that has been awarded the National Association for Information Destruction (NAID) AAA certification. This certification is only given to companies that have proven they properly handle and destruct personal information, so you should be able to trust leaving your devices with an electronics recycler that has this certification.

Although this study only looked at smartphones, tablets, and hard drives, it’s important to note that there are other types of electronic devices that could contain personal information. For example, gamers often enter their contact information and credit card numbers into their gaming consoles so they can buy games through their device. Don’t forget to wipe this information off of your console prior to recycling or selling it.

For more information on recycling electronics and protecting your personal information, contact ERI today.