Before recycling or selling your aging laptop or cellphone, you might want to consider smashing it to bits instead.

That’s especially true for older Windows XP laptops and netbooks, or Android smartphones because they can be a gold mine to identity thieves, says McAfee identity theft expert Robert Siciliano. “I would beat the thing to death.”

Apple’s iPad and iPhone and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry don’t represent the same risk, he says. But you should reset your used Apple or RIM device to the original factory settings before it leaves your possession.

Siciliano randomly purchased 30 used devices off Craigslist, and had them examined with simple forensics tools. Half the devices were thoroughly wiped clean, but 15 disgorged plenty of sensitive data, ranging from bank account and Social Security numbers to work documents and court records.

Consumers are storing more personal and work-related data on personal devices, at a time that electronics makers are enticing them to upgrade to faster, more capable smartphones, tablet PCs and e-readers.

Meanwhile, it’s not always easy to wipe older devices clean, and any data left behind could have tangible value in a cyberunderground that revolves around online exchanges in which stolen data gets quickly converted to cash, says Mary Ann Miller, financial fraud expert at Nice Actimize, a supplier of banking security systems. “Security should be a key consideration from the moment you acquire a device — and when you dispose (of) it,” she says.

Millions of Windows XP laptops, desktops and netbooks are expected to be scrapped or sold as Microsoft makes a big push later this year to roll out its Windows 8 operating system. An XP hard drive can be difficult to extract data from and tricky to wipe completely clean, Siciliano says.

Resetting Google Android smartphones to the original factory settings doesn’t always work, Siciliano says. “On iPhones and iPads, we found little to no data; BlackBerry, same thing,” Siciliano says. “Even when someone did a factory reset on an Android, we still found a tremendous amount of data.”

Google did not respond to interview requests, and Microsoft declined to comment.

Miller says device makers need to supply more guidance to consumers on how to responsibly dispose of old devices. “The potential exposure, when you count all of the computers and mobile devices out there, is in the billions,” Miller says. “Companies and consumers need to work together to come up with a remedy.”

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