Smash up your hard drive to avoid ID theftAvoid falling victim to identity theft

08 January 2009

Computer hard drive

Avoid falling victim to ID fraud by destroying your hard drive with a hammer when you throw away your computer, says Which? Computing.

The magazine issued the advice after learning that identity thieves are trawling council tips and internet auction sites for discarded PCs.

They will pay for specialist software to recover data the original owner had deleted with the hope of finding personal information. With personal information, they can make a fraudulent credit card application, order a new phone, or even apply for a copy of a birth certificate.

Pay day for identity thieves

Which? Computing editor Sarah Kidner warned that the risk of falling victim is high as the average UK citizen is worth an estimated £85,000 to an identity fraudster.

‘PCs contain more valuable personal information than ever as people increasingly shop online, use social networking sites and take digital photos.

‘Even if you delete your files, you’d be surprised how easy it is to recover your personal data. Such information could bring identity thieves a hefty payday.

‘It sounds extreme, but the only way to be 100% safe is to smash your hard drive into smithereens.’

Hard drives on eBay

Alexander Skipwith, a Which? Computing reader from London, had to pay £100 to get his hard drive back from a man purporting to be in Latvia. The man emailed Alexander with a personal photo to show that he had access to his hard drive, which contained bank statements and a mortgage application.

Alexander had previously been told that his faulty hard drive would be wiped of personal information when it was replaced by a computer manufacturer.

To see how easy it is to retrieve personal information from old computers, Which? Computing bought eight second-hand hard drives from auction site eBay and found that they still held confidential information.

Using free software downloaded from the internet, Which? Computing researchers were able to recover 22,000 ‘deleted’ files, including images, music files and spreadsheets.

Which? Computing says to be absolutely sure your files are deleted, remove the hard drive from your PC and destroy it with a hammer.

If you're looking for a replacement computer, check out our laptop or desktop PC buying guides.

Take action to stop ID theft

It’s not just home users who are at risk from carelessly discarded hard drive data – the Metropolitan police told us that hard drives from decommissioned cash machines were bought by crooks keen to get hold of the bank details.

1. Delete your data properly
It’s your data on your hard drive, so it’s your responsibility. Even if you give your PC to a charity, it doesn’t have
to delete your data unless it specifically says it will. Charity Computer Aid promises to destroy any data on your old PC.

2. Think about how you store data
Avoid storing sensitive data (such as credit card numbers and passwords)on your PC. If you really need to store this data,
encrypt it.

3. Use data deletion software
Our tests showed that paid-for packages such as TuneUp to be effective at obliterating data, so use
one to remove your files before dumping your PC.

4. Destroy your drive
If you want to be sure that no one will ever access data on your hard drive, destroy it. Hit it with a hammer, drive
a large nail through it, or smash it with an axe.

5. Don't worry!
If you’re careful, you significantly lower the chances of someone stealing your precious personal data.

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