Before donating, selling, or discarding your old computer,
remove all personal or private information from the hard drive to ensure that
it does not become a treasure chest for identity thieves to hack into. If you
do not properly remove the information, anyone with minimal skills and a basic
software program can easily retrieve the data without your permission and do a
lot of damage to your identity and your finances.
Personal and financial information that thieves commonly try
to hack from computer hard drives include:
passwords and account numbers
medical and prescription information
addresses and phone numbers, especially non-public ones
files created automatically by browsers and operating system
license keys or registration numbers for software programs
Removing content from the hard drive is not difficult, but
it does require more than just hitting the delete button when you want to
discard information from your files. You need to use software to electronically
remove the information, also known as “wiping” “scrubbing” or “cleaning” the
hard drive. If you do not intend to use the computer again, the other option is
to take the hard drive out of your computer and physically destroy it with
something like a hammer to make it permanently unusable.
Understand your hard drive
When you save a file on your computer, the information in
that file is intentionally scattered around the computer’s hard drive in bits
and pieces. When you open the file, the hard drive gathers the bits and pieces
and reconstructs them into a readable format.
When you delete a file, your computer only sets a marker on
the hard drive to indicate that the file is no longer available for viewing and
the links to reconstruct the file visually disappear. However, the content of
the file is still there in bits and pieces, making it possible for thieves to
access and retrieve your information. The bits and pieces of deleted files stay
on your computer until they are overwritten and even then the bits and pieces
can sometimes be retrieved. To permanently remove data from a hard drive, the
hard drive needs to be wiped clean with software designed to properly remove
the bits and pieces.
How to clean a hard drive
Before cleaning your hard drive; save the files you want to
keep by transferring them to a DVD, USB drive, CD-ROM, external hard drive, or
to a new computer. If you are unsure how to externally save data or transfer it
to a new computer, check your owner’s manual, the manufacturer’s website, or
contact the manufacturer’s customer support service department.
After you have transferred the files that you want to save,
clean your hard drive using a utility software program designed to overwrite
the remaining files or wipe the hard drive. Utility software programs are
available both online and in stores where computers are sold. The programs are
generally inexpensive and some are available on the internet for free. Some
utility programs erase the entire hard drive, while others allow you to select
specific files or folders to erase. Keep in mind that utility programs vary and
it is best to use a program that overwrites or wipes the entire hard drive many
times, rather than just once. If the cleaning software only wipes or overwrites
the hard drive one time, deleted information can still be retrieved by skilled
computer users with advanced software programs.
If you use your home or personal computer for business
purposes, check with your employer for guidelines to manage the information on
your computer that is business-related. The law requires businesses to follow
data security and disposal requirements for certain information that’s related
Destroy rather than clean a hard drive
If you do not intend to ever use the computer again, you can
protect the files by physically removing the hard drive from the computer and
destroying it beyond repair. Simply use a hammer or other object to make the
hard drive unusable by others who may want to put it back into a computer and
attempt to retrieve your old files. Remember to wear eye protection while
rendering the hard drive unusable.
How to dispose of your computer
Recycle: Most computer equipment contains hazardous
materials that do not belong in a landfill such as heavy metals that can
contaminate the environment. The EPA recommends that you check with your local
health and sanitation agencies for ways to dispose of electronics safely.
Many computer manufacturers have programs to recycle
computers and components. Check their websites or call their toll-free numbers
for more information. E-Cycle Wisconsin is a statewide, manufacturer-funded
program that recycles certain electronics used in homes and schools.
Individuals and K-12 public schools can use E-Cycle Wisconsin to save on
electronics recycling. Others may use the program to find responsible recyclers.
Visit the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website at
http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/ecycle for more information about electronic product
recycling programs in your community.
Donate or sell: Many organizations collect old computers and
donate them to charities, while some people and organizations actually buy old
computers. Check online for options available in your area.
Remove all personal or private information from the hard
drive of your old computer before donating, selling, or discarding it. If you
do not, thieves could hack into your finances or steal your identity.