LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - You might have one lying around. It could be sitting in the basement or the back of your closet. Before you try to sell an old cell phone or computer for a little extra cash, listen up - you could be handing a stranger your personal information and not even know it.
I uncovered some startling research that is going to make anyone selling their old device think twice. The WAVE 3 Troubleshooter Department found that compromising personal information could still be found on those old computers and cell phones of computer savvy college students who thought they had wiped the memory clean.
It's a high tech age where last year's model is the last thing you want. Buying the new and selling the old. On Craigslist and eBay. Handing over unused electronics to the highest bidder.
"We are continually upgrading to different technologies," said Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert and researcher for McAfee, a company that sells computer security software.
Now, the WAVE 3 Troubleshooter Department discovered you could be giving away much more than you think.
"Criminal hackers are very aware," Siciliano said, "that for very short cash they can buy a second hand device and they can steal your identity."
Siciliano bought 30 used cell phones, PDA'S, computers and tablets from college students in the Boston area. The old owners thought they had wiped the memory clean. In many cases, they hadn't.
"You might find social security numbers you might find user names and passwords," said Siciliano, who added that one of the worst performing brands is one the industry's most well known names.
Siciliano found Google's Android operating system left hidden pockets of sensitive information on Droid cell phones even after a factory reset which is supposed to delete all the information on a device.
"Android left the consumers data on the device even after they did a factory reset," Siciliano said. "That's a defect in their operating system."
Google has not responded to our questions about that alleged glitch, but Siciliano said it was not the only company that had problems. This is what he pulled off a hard drive from a computer using Microsoft Windows XP.
"Family photos, family videos, tax files," Siciliano said. "We found family's entire social security numbers, their bank account information."
Sciliano said the problem with Windows XP is twofold. There are confusing instructions that leave even tech savvy users unable to wipe the hard drives clean. In addition, there are partitions, or doors, in the software often wall off data leaving it on the hard drive even after a factory reset. That means it is there for the taking by a hacker with the right software.
In a statement, Microsoft told the WAVE 3 Troubleshooter Department the company has made considerable security and privacy improvements that protect user data and personal information in its new operating system, Windows 7.
"For example, Windows 7 offers services such as BitLocker, that can protect documents or the entire hard drive," wrote spokeswoman Alyssa Mancuso. "Users can also easily uninstall and reinstall Windows 7 back to its factory settings, eliminating their personal data from the PC. These are just a few examples of how Microsoft has evolved Windows to protect our users' confidential information since the release of Windows XP."
People selling old electronics aren't the only ones at risk. The McAfee researcher found one out of every two old devices they purchased had a virus on it. That means the person buying it could also be a target of identity theft. Siciliano said those viruses can be used to steal your information off of that device.
The news wasn't all bad. Siciliano couldn't get any vital information off iPhone's, iPad's or Blackberry's. That's evidence, Siciliano said, of factory reset functions that erase all the information on a device.
Siciliano said that might make it less risky to sell outdated devices on the secondary market. But he still believes that's a place where making a few bucks on old electronics, just doesn't pay.
"Your identity isn't worth the $50 you may get for that device," said Siciliano.
If you do plan to sell your old cell phones or computers, here's the best advice - completely remove the hard drive and smash it with a hammer. That advice is not a joke. Siciliano said that's the only way to ensure no one will ever retrieve any information from it.
When it comes to cell phones or PDA's, do the factory reset multiple times. Experts said sometimes things left over from the initial wipe can be deleted if you repeat the process.
Finally, if you have one of those old netbooks Siciliano said just throw it away. Netbooks lack a CD-ROM drive and the ability to wipe the memory. Even if you go through and delete files manually, the information can be retrieved.
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