Preventing Identity Theft: Proper Disposal Of Old Computers

Computer Data Has a Long Shelf Life

Conscientious people shred their bank statements and cut up their credit cards without a thought. But when it comes to disposing of their computer’s hard drive, they can be extremely careless. With computers constantly evolving and being made more powerful, people frequently upgrade to the newest models, casting aside millions of computers yearly. Many computer users leave sensitive information on their hard drives as they discard them at computer drop-off centers or in landfills, just waiting for an identity thief to come by. If you have a computer to dispose of, you don’t want to become a future statistic for identity theft.

Some people do not realize the process involved in removing data from a hard drive. Many computer users think if they move all their files to the trash or reformat the hard drive that the files are gone for good. Actually, those trashed files remain fully intact, unless they are rewritten. Rewriting only takes place if space is needed and most computers have ample space. In the case of reformatting the drive, data can be still retrieved with the right tools. If you are among the unaware, the Department of Defense has advice on how to remove information from a hard drive.

Wiping the Hard Drive

You can buy programs, also known as shredders, which are relatively inexpensive, or find freeware on the Internet that will do the job. These programs cover the data with zeros or random characters to make them unreadable by data-restoration software. The DOD recommends overwriting the drive sectors three times with different characters. Other experts recommend going over the data seven times to make it completely unrecoverable. Also, wiping just certain files may not fully protect your information, as copies of those files can be stored in other parts of your computer. It is probably best to use the wiping program on your entire hard drive.

Removing the Hard Drive

If you don’t want to use a wiping program, you can remove your computer’s hard drive. It is relatively small and will store easily in a safe or other secure location. If you aren’t sure where the hard drive is located on your computer, refer to your manual or manufacturer’s website. Once removed, some people resort to pounding the hard drive with a hammer, or using a magnet, or soaking it in water or acid. All these methods are ineffectual. The only method to guarantee the removal of your information is to sand the platters or use an industrial shredder which obliterates it.

Discard Wisely

The sheer amount of e-waste being generated each year is a threat to our environment. Federal regulations don’t cover e-waste, but some states have passed legislation dealing with the landfill problem. Yet, disposing of a computer is easier today than a few years ago as there are more options available. To help confront the landfill problem, some stores have unveiled take-back or buy-back programs. While online sites have also appeared to buy back old electronics, where they will revamp them to sell or recycle the components. You would be doing a great service if you consider other options rather than tossing your computer into a landfill.

Stealing your sensitive information from an old hard drive is just one way criminals can commit identity theft.  Learn other methods to protect yourself from identity theft and keep your data out of the wrong hands.


1. Department of Defense, Department of Defense Directive, October 24, 2002,