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New products, Protecting yourself

To prevent ID theft, wipe your old smartphone

Sienna Kossman

Samsung will release a new smartphone model this fall and rumors of new Apple products have surfaced, so you may be anxious to soon ditch your “outdated” phone for the latest and greatest device. But not so fast.

Before you discard your information-packed, minicomputer, wipe it clean of all your personal data.

I’m ready to move on from my Android smartphone and have been wondering what I should do before recycling or selling it. I know it’s got a lot of stuff on it, but how would a stranger benefit from my contacts or camera gallery full of puppy pictures? I’ve never voluntarily surrendered a working phone before; my old phones either died or were so damaged they were useless.I reached out to Eva Velasquez, CEO and president of the Identity Theft Resource Center to find out. She reminded me just how much we rely on our phones these days — connecting to Wi-Fi, disclosing our location and transacting on the go — and how sensitive that makes them.

“Think of your identity as a puzzle and there are all these pieces that go into it — biometrics, account numbers, your driver’s license number — but it also includes behaviors — where you shop, how much you spend and when,” said Velasquez. “And boy, does your phone have a lot of those pieces.”

The more pieces an identity thief can get his or her hands on — in other words, the more you leave on your phone — the more damage that can be done. For example, “If you save your passwords in your phone and don’t wipe it, you could give someone access to your bank account and they could wipe your money,” Velasquez added.

Even my pictures are sensitive. “Photos could show where you live, who your important family members are and where you’ve been,” Preet Anand, CEO and founder of emergency response app company BlueLight, told me. Again, more puzzle pieces.

Yikes. Time to start cleaning!

If you’re ready to upgrade to a new smartphone like I am, follow these four steps to thoroughly clean off your personal info-laden device:

1. Delete all apps.
Devices connected to social accounts such as Facebook and Twitter often have access permissions associated with them through bits of data such as your phone number or saved username and password details. Chris Hutton of technology information site laptopmag.com recommends checking your Apple, Google and appropriate social media account settings and removing that saved data from all accounts.

Next, uninstall all your apps. Keep in mind that deleting an app off your home screen isn’t always the same thing as uninstalling the app. For example, with my Android phone, if you go to the “Apps” screen and press and hold an app icon, you’ll get an option on the screen to uninstall it. But Apple users will have to go into their iTunes account to actually get rid of an app completely. Make sure the apps are actually gone from your device — icons and all. (You should be able to install them to your new phone, as long as you have them saved to a backup.)

2. “Reset” your phone.
Many mobile phones allow you to wipe your device and clear nearly all the information in its memory with something usually called a “hard reset” or “factory reset.” You may even be prompted to save or transfer some or all of your stored information elsewhere before the deletion process.

Note: If you aren’t prompted to automatically back up information, back it up anyway using Google Drive, Apple’s iCloud or another cloud-based storage service. After all, who can remember phone numbers these days?

Again, different smartphone models have to be reset differently. This laptopmag.com blog post does a good job explaining the factory reset process for Android, Apple and Windows devices. Still need more help? Read your particular device’s manual, check your service carrier’s website or visit a reputable retailer.

3. Remove or erase SIM/SD cards.
Even when you “wipe” your device, your smartphone’s SIM or SD storage card may retain information about you, such as address book details and text messages. Remove it from your device or delete the saved data before ditching the phone.

Not sure if your phone has an extra storage card? Ask your mobile service provider. If you’re an AT&T or T-Mobile customer, chances are you have such a card in your device, but most phones from Verizon Wireless and Sprint do not use SIM cards, according to this NBC News report. Your phone’s operating system may also affect external storage options, so find out what the deal is with your device and carrier before writing off this step.

4. Double-check your work.
Before you ditch your smartphone completely, make sure all your cleaning work was effective. Page through your device to ensure bits of personal data aren’t still present, such as:

  • Contact information
  • Call log data
  • Saved voice mails
  • Sent and received emails and text messages
  • Downloads and other saved files (i.e., screenshots)
  • Web browser search histories

Is your phone clean? Good. Now you can decide whether to recycle or sell your used phone. Or, if you’re like me, you could tuck it away safely in case you neglect your shiny new device and need a backup later.

Whatever you decide, you can rest easy knowing your old smartphone isn’t a time capsule of your life and a treasure trove of data for identity thieves.

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