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Your Old Cell Phone Can Betray ALL of Your Secrets -- Be Careful

Technology for cell phones, like that for computers, televisions and even cars, is constantly changing, and every month a new-and-improved version hits the market. Not surprisingly, Americans upgrade their cell phones often to take advantage of the latest gadgets -- about every 18 months.

cell phone

Be careful what you input into your cell phone. One company was able to restore data that was thought to have been erased, including credit card numbers, sensitive company information and private text messages.

Of course, bringing home a new phone means getting rid of the old standby, but it's harder than you may think to safely delete all of your personal information. And, as a recent Associated Press story reported, getting rid of your old cell phone can be a real threat to your privacy if you're not careful.

Out With the Old, In With the New

"Most people toss their phones after they're done; a lot of them give their old phones to family members or friends," said Miro Kazakoff, a researcher of mobile phone sales and trends at Compete Inc., Boston.

Increasing numbers of people are also opting to sell their old phones online at auction sites. Why not get some money back for your phone? Because even if it looks like you've deleted everything -- including if you've reset the phone -- it's still possible for your information -- your text messages, your phone numbers, e-mails and more -- to be found.

It takes some special software to do it, yes, but the software is inexpensive, and it's available easily over the Internet.

Over 27,000 Pages of Private Data Found

Trust Digital, based in McLean, Va., bought 10 phones from eBay in an effort to test phone security tools. Software experts at the company were able to get information from nine out of 10 of the used phones, including:

  • Details of prescriptions

  • E-mails about a company's $50,000 payment for a software license

  • Another company's plans to get a multimillion-dollar federal transportation contract

  • Credit card numbers and banking passwords

  • A conversation between a married man and his mistress

The information they recovered was equal to 27,000 single-spaced pages.

cell phone

If you want to be really sure that no one can recover your cell phone's data, the best bet may be to physically destroy it.

"We found just a mountain of personal and corporate data," said Nick Magliato, Trust Digital's chief executive.

How to Discard Your Phone AND Protect Your Privacy

Data in phones and PDA devices is stored in flash memory, which means it's still there even if the battery runs out or is removed. Deleting information from flash memory requires a "hard reset," and every company's is different. One cell phone required holding down three buttons while pressing a fourth on the back, while others can only be done by contacting the phone's manufacturer or your wireless carrier service to override the existing data with zeros.

As the report found, simply deleting or resetting the phone may not be adequate. To be most cautious, don't input any sensitive information (e-mails, text messages, Internet transactions, etc.) into your cell phone. You can also set a password that will lock the phone and prevent others from accessing it.

Some companies also offer options that allow you to wipe out information if the phone is stolen, via a special e-mail code sent to the phone.

Of course, if you really want to be safe, rather than donating your phone to a family member or, worse, selling it on eBay, physically destroy it so nothing can be recovered.

One final, environmentally friendly, option is to recycle your phone by donating it to a charity. has a cell phone data eraser that gives you instructions on how to erase data from your phone, but they don't guarantee that this will make it unrecoverable.

Recommended Reading

Did You Know that Anyone Can Easily Access Your Cell Phone Records?

What are the Dangers of Living Near Cell Phone Towers?


Information Week August 30, 2006

MSNBC August 30, 2006 August 31, 2006

Chicago Tribune August 31, 2006

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