How to Dispose of an Old Computer and Thwart Identity Thieves

Banging a hammer against your hard drive is not just a satisfying way to take out some aggression on a helpless piece of old technology. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) also says it’s one way to help protect sensitive data that may still be held within an old personal computer you want to recycle. The idea, the federal tech agency says, is to “disfigure, bend, mangle or otherwise mutilate” your hard drive so it can’t be reinserted into another computer.

It’s important to take precautions to help make sure someone can’t steal sensitive information, such as your bank records, Social Security number, tax records or other personal data that is stored on your computer. While physical destruction is one method of helping to protect your info, it may not be the most practical option if you plan to donate or sell the device. Another measure you can take is wiping the data from the hard drive so your computer can safely be reused. Below are some steps to consider taking:

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Start the process by making a copy of your files on an external hard drive or a new computer (Microsoft has suggestions on how to do that on a computer running Windows; and here are Apple’s recommendations on backing up your Mac hard drive).

Do More than Delete

Then, avoid the temptation to just delete your files because, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), it isn’t effective. Even if you move files to the recycle bin on your computer and then “empty the trash,” the information is still there and can still be retrieved, says the agency.

A better alternative, according to US-CERT, is to use a program that deletes the data and then overwrites, or wipes, the information from the hard drive multiple times. Experts are generally wary of making program recommendations, but US-CERT says DBAN and Erasure are potential options for Windows computers (both are free downloads). Apple offers instructions for how OS users can clean their hard drives.

Consumer Reports says secure erasing can take “several hours or days to complete” so keep that in mind when planning when and how you’ll ultimately dispose of the device.

Decide Where to Send It

When the device is clean, consider what you’ll do with it next. You can pass it along to a neighbor or a friend. Or, you might also consider recycling it.

Many manufacturer- and retailer-sponsored programs will take your drop-offs or mail-ins and then dismantle the computers for materials recycling. The Environmental Protection Agency offers a list of computer manufacturer and retailer programs that do just that.

If your computer is relatively new, though, you might consider selling it or trading it in instead. There are hosts of refurbishers that recondition and upgrade old computers for resale, or for use by people in underserved communities. Microsoft has a list of recommended refurbishers with both commercial and charitable objectives. Meanwhile, Apple has its own refurbish program, offering gift cards for devices it deems viable or recycling options if your computer is judged not reusable (even if your computer isn’t a Mac).

Whatever you decide, know that the companies that sponsor these programs recommend removing all the data from your computer before you send it off to its new home. If your needs are pretty basic, and you plan to sell or pass the device along, overwriting your data with a program might do the trick. But if you’re planning to recycle your computer and you are looking for the ultimate protection — and peace of mind — you just might find that nothing short of a hammer will do.

Smash Hard Drive Before Recycling

PCWorld Magazine says using a hammer on your hard drive may be a waste of still-usable hardware, so you may want to consider the above options first. But, if you decide to destroy the hard drive and recycle your computer, the NIST recommends these safety precautions:

Disconnect all power sources from the computer. Use the instruction manual or schematic to find the computer’s hard drive. Remove the hard drive from the computer. Remove any steel shielding material or mounting brackets. Make sure the hard drive is not connected to a power supply. Wear appropriate safety gear, such as protective goggles. Put the drive on a surface that won’t be damaged.

Once these preparations are made, it’s time to smash the hard drive. The NIST says you should hit it hard enough on the top in order to make sure you damage the disk surfaces, and also to make sure to damage the ports that would allow it to connect to a computer.

With the proper steps, you can safely dispose of your old computer and still have a little peace of mind knowing your sensitive data has been removed.

Originally published on September 19, 2014.


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