10% who sell old PCs and phones at risk of ID theft

Old computersMasante Patrice/ABACA/Press Association Images

A new study from the Information Commissioner's Office has found that one in ten people are making themselves vulnerable to ID theft when they sell on their old computers and smartphones.

So what are the risks, and how can you protect yourself?

The investigation

The office bought 200 computers from internet auction sites and set to work to discover what information was lurking on the hard drives. Around half still had information contained on them and 11% had personal information stored on the disks, leaving the sellers open to attack from fraudsters.

From all of the drives, a total of 34,000 files containing personal information were discovered - a mine of information for scammers and conmen. Two of the drives had everything a criminal needed to entirely adopt the identity of the seller. And another four had vital financial or medical information lurking on the hard drive.

The risks

The information on this small sample becomes particularly worrying when the office adds that two thirds of people pass on or sell their old computers and phones, and one in ten don't delete the information on them before they do so. It means millions of potential victims.

The specific risk depends on the information that's on there, but your phone number will open you up to telephone scams, your email address to online approaches, and your financial details could put you at risk from a direct attack on your finances. Any information in the hands of the wrong person is a risk. You have to ask yourself, for example, whether you really want another person wandering around with your medical records.

So how can you protect yourself?

Deleting the information is a start, but it's not enough. The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, warned that: "Many people will presume that pressing the delete button on a computer file means that it is gone forever. However this information can easily be recovered."

The office has published an online guide as to the actions you need to take in order to be completely safe. Ironically, its website is down today, so reading it could be a little tricky.

The experts themselves would never sell their own computer on with the hard drive intact. One anonymous security tester told AOL that he would always drill through his hard-drive and throw it away, because even overwriting the disk isn't enough to protect your data: if someone wants it badly enough they will find a way to get their hands on it.

It is certainly worth taking precautions. It may seem too much like hard work, but as Graham said: "We live in a world where personal and company information is a highly valuable commodity. It is important that people do everything they can to stop their details from falling into the wrong hands."

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