12/26/2012 11:30 am ET Updated Feb 25, 2013

Be Careful When Discarding Old Smartphones and Electronics

With the holiday season almost at an end, consumers all across the country will soon be reselling, donating or recycling their old smartphones, desktops, laptops and other electronics. But few people realize that gadgets often retain a significant amount of personal information -- even after you think you've deleted it.

Therefore, before getting rid of an electronic device, make sure you've gone through the proper steps to eliminate your personal data, or you could wind up a victim of identity theft.

Here are a few tips:

  • Smartphones. Every brand of smartphone is different - although, these days, most people are either using an iPhone or Android phone. For an iPhone (or iPad or iPod), follow these steps: (1) tap the 'Settings' icon; (2) tap 'General'; (3) scroll down to the bottom and tap 'Reset'; and (4) tap 'Erase All Content and Settings'. That should thoroughly wipe your data from the i-device. Android phones require a bit more work. At a minimum, you will want to reformat and remove the SD card and do a factory reset of the operating system. However, it's important to realize that on an Android OS, the factory reset option isn't 100 percent foolproof. Whoever gets your phone could use a special forensics tool to restore your deleted information. Therefore, the best option with an Android phone is to encrypt the device, which makes recovery much more difficult, or use an effective data-wiping program like SHREDroid or Forevergone. For those who still use a BlackBerry, these devices have the ability to do an effective wipe of the device.
  • Computers (Desktops or Laptops). The best option is to remove the hard drive altogether and sell/donate just the actual computer. However, if you're not comfortable removing the hard drive, you can also use a free data-wiping tool like DBAN or KillDisk.
  • Game Console. Whether it's an Xbox, PlayStation or Wii, your game console is likely to be saving sensitive information -- maybe even your credit card. Before getting rid of your console, make sure you take the time to erase whatever information is still stored inside. For the Xbox, reformat the hard drive by going to the 360 dashboard, then "Memory," then select "Hard Drive" under "Storage Devices." From here you can erase all pertinent data before discarding the console. If you have a Wii, make sure you first delete your Wii shop channel account. Next, reformat the hard drive by going to "Options," then "Settings" and then selecting "Format Wii System Memory." For the PS3, follow Sony's steps to delete all user accounts, format the hard drive and delete your billing information. Here is a good article that sums up these steps for the three game consoles.
  • Digital Cameras. The safest option is to remove the memory card altogether before discarding the camera. However, if you can't do this, then you need to go to the camera's menu and click on "Erase," "Format," or "Initialize" in order to erase and reformat the memory card.
  • Printers. The good news about personal/home printers is that they rarely save personal data. These printers use volatile memory to store your print jobs temporarily, but this information is erased as soon as another print job is placed in queue or the printer is turned off. If you own a commercial-grade network printer, then you will have to worry about stored data, as these printers do have hard drives. But for the average home user, your printer should be safe to discard as-is -- with one exception. If you have a printer/scanner/fax combo machine, make sure you remove any stored numbers, such as your fax number or other fax numbers stored in 'speed dial.' To erase these, simply follow the manufacturer's instructions to do a factory reset of the device.
  • Scanner. As stated above with printers, personal/home scanners do not have hard drives, so the information is not saved beyond a short period of time when the machine is actually performing the task at hand. It is safe to discard a personal/home scanner as-is.
  • Flash Drives (or Thumbdrives). Since these are relatively inexpensive to purchase, so not really worth reselling, the best advice here is to overwrite the data on the thumbdrive three times in a row and then physically destroy the device with a hammer before recycling it. Just make sure that you actually destroy the storage chips inside the device -- not just the outer plastic casing.
  • GPS navigators. The GPS navigator is one device that's often overlooked when it comes to stored personal information. Remember, the GPS navigator has saved routes and travel information in its storage device. So before you get rid of this type of gadget, make sure you have deleted all of your stored routes.

While some of these tips may sound paranoid to the average person, it's important to realize that cheap, easy-to-use computer forensic tools are now widely available online. It doesn't take a computer genius to be able to restore deleted information from a hard drive or other electronic device anymore. The most at-risk device is still the computer -- and this is primarily because it is likely to store your online banking information, personal finance records and other sensitive personal and financial data. As more people use their smartphones and tablets as traditional computers, however, these devices will become more risky for people to discard.