How to Wipe Your Data Before You Sell, Donate, or Recycle Unwanted Computers and Smartphones
Last updated September 15, 2023
Our digital devices are doomed to die or become obsolete. As we have reported, because electronics contain a terrible mix of toxic chemicals and materials, you should dispose of them properly. But before doing that (or donating or reselling them), you’ll need to make sure you’ve “wiped” the memory completely.
It's not enough to simply delete all your files; that usually won't permanently destroy digital data.
Listen to audio highlights of the story below:
“We are led to believe deleting makes things permanently go away. The truth is that data can be retrieved in most cases,” said Chester Wisniewski, global field chief technology officer at Sophos, an international digital security company. “Not just police or forensic experts can access deleted data. The tools are available to almost anyone, including identity thieves and nosy second or third owners. The sensitive data includes text messages, photos, documents, email, and passwords.”
Before getting rid of an old tablet, laptop, desktop computer, smartphone, or smart TV, follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how to properly “wipe” the memory.
Before starting, back up any files you want to keep to the cloud or another hard drive.
“You want to bring that device back to factory settings, and that means reinstalling the operating system,” said Robert Siciliano, a digital security expert with Protect Now, a cybersecurity consulting firm.
Desktops and Laptops
Follow the manufacturers’ instructions to remove data:
- Apple: What To Do Before You Sell, Give Away, or Trade In Your Mac
- Chromebook: Reset Your Chromebook to Factory Settings
- PC: How to Completely Wipe Your Old Computer's Hard Drive
Doing a total reset on a PC still may not remove all your info and files; afterward, it’s a good idea to run a utility program, such as Disk Wipe or DBAN. Both of these free apps will destroy whatever data is left on the drive.
“These utility programs are designed to overwrite all the leftover data so that it’s indecipherable and really can’t be put back together to steal your identity,” Siciliano explained.
If your old device contains extremely sensitive data, or you just want to be extra careful, you may want to remove the hard drive and physically destroy it. A few good whacks with a hammer or a couple of holes drilled through the disc will do the trick. If you’ve been having trouble with your computer, you’ll find this task is very rewarding. If your device has a solid-state drive, deleting the files and performing a factory reset is sufficient — no need for safety goggles and a sledgehammer.
Smartphones and Tablets
Follow these steps to delete your files and reset the device:
- Android: Reset Your Android Device to Factory Settings
- Apple: What to Do Before You Sell, Give Away, or Trade in Your iPhone or iPad
Also, if you are not going to reuse the SIM card, remove it and destroy it.
Log out of any subscription services (Netflix, Disney+, Amazon, etc.) so they can’t be used by someone else.
Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He has been protecting consumers for more than 40 years, having covered the consumer beat for CBS News, The Today Show, and NBCNews.com. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.