How to Remove Personal Information From an Old Computer

Thinking of donating or trashing an old computer?  Before you do, consider the personal information that you’ve saved (either knowingly or otherwise) to your computer and remove it before you put yourself at risk for identity fraud.

If you’re like me, your computer is packed with emails containing personal information, account numbers, and sometimes even account passwords.  You may have even saved off a soft copy of last year’s tax return from Turbotax, or PDF copies of your check stubs from work.  You get the picture; your computer is full of personal information that in the wrong hands could expose you to a risk of identity theft, some in obvious easy-to-remove place, others in hidden and lesser-used folders.  Here are some things to think about before handing over your old PC.

Why not just delete personal and sensitive files from ‘My Documents’, then empty my Recycle bin?

Many of the files and documents (including those that are personal) you use on a daily basis are saved in the My Documents folder (for Windows XP; Vista and Windows 7 call it Document Library).  However, downloaded files are sent to a different location (this depends on your internet browser settings).  Additionally, emails and downloaded files can sometimes be stored as a temporary file in other obscure locations on the disk.
What’s worse – a simple deletion doesn’t entirely clear the files from your system.  Even after you’ve deleted the file, and ‘emptied’ you recycle bin, traces of the file may still be available to recover. In fact, a quick search on Google reveals there are quite a few businesses that survive by helping people recover data they’ve accidentally deleted from their computer.  It goes without saying that a would-be identity thief could do the same.

Let’s move on to how to prevent your identity from being stolen from your old PC’s hard drive.

Think about how the computer will be used next…
If the computer is headed for a recycling facility (or the trash), your best bet is to destroy the old hard drive.  Before you do, be sure to copy all the files you may need onto a USB drive, or burn them to a disc (there’s no turning back). Then, remove the hard drive from your laptop or desktop and hit it with a hammer!  It’s probably a good idea to wear safety goggles; the magnetic disk will turn into dust when you hit it. I’ll admit this method is a bit extreme, but think of it like shredding a credit card; it’s essentially the same idea.

If you’re preparing the computer to be used by anyone else (ie, computer donation), you’ll want to use less extreme measures to protect your personal information. Either method below will not only delete your personal files, but also overwrite them with new data, making them impossible to recover for a would-be identity thief.

* Make your hard drive a blank slate. Use something like GParted to reformat the disk and wipe it clean.

* Install a new operating system for the next owner to use. Reformatting the disk will mean that the next owner will need to install their own operating system on the computer before using it. Save them a step and install a new operating system, like Ubuntu, which is free to download and install.  Follow these tips to reduce the risk of identity theft when disposing of an old PC.

Have other methods of protecting information on a computer before you give it away?  Tell us what has worked for you.

- Jared, AllClear ID Team