Hidden data in old cellular phones poses risks

What do you do with your old cell phones? If you’ve ever given it away, sold or recycled it, you probably wiped it clean or thought you did. But an old phone can be a goldmine for thieves.

Our cell phones, how we love them, cradle them, take them everywhere… and smash them? What would drive someone to do that?

“Think of it as a weapon because the trouble people can get into using these devices is so big,” said Chris Duque from the Prosecuting Attorney’s White Collar Crime Unit.

That’s right, that cyber-detective said weapon because phones new and old are goldmines.

“Look at what your store in your wallet, your digital assets are much more valuable than the tangible currency we use today,” Duque said.

With consumers upgrading phones more frequently, KHON2 wanted to know what happens with the old ones, especially if you’re planning on trading it in, selling, or donating it.

We gathered up a bunch from around KHON2’s office. They were supposedly reset, but you may be surprised what’s hiding among them.

“So I have six phones here that are wiped clean, what do you see?” KHON2 asked.

“Money. A lot of money here,” Duque said. “Maybe tens of thousands of dollars because on those phones. Basically, anything you put on your phone is like a computer. It can be extracted even though you think it’s been erased.”

So how is that possible?

“You can do a soft reset on your phone which only resets the operating system,” said Kenny Amazaki of Phone Medic Hawaii.

That doesn’t clean the slate, but supposedly the “factory reset” will.

“When I hit factory reset before, I hand over a phone. Is it wiped clean?” KHON2 asked.

“In some cases. People with special equipment or software can go on and retrieve bits and pieces of data,” Amazaki said. “Birth date information, address information, Social Security, bank account information, and stuff like that that they can exploit and sell.”

And the risk isn’t only financial.

“You’ve got a list of all their pictures. This is tied to the camera of the phone,” Amazaki said.

Your life, mapped, by locator data on the photos you take. We showed that to one phone’s owner.

“Do you ever remember going around there?” KHON2 asked.

“Yeah,” said the owner.

“So what do you think when you see that?” KHON2 asked.

“Probably should have done a better job of cleaning out my phone,” the owner replied. “It’s not something I want to have easily accessible to others to follow my every step, or to reach any friend. I didn’t even know that all my contacts were still in there. I just assumed that if the bottom one was empty they were gone.”

Or worse.

“The photographs can be used to impersonate that person, or any kind of impersonation,” Duque said.

Are phones considered a prime source for identity thieves?

“Oh absolutely, because most people have all that stored on their phones in some way shape or form. If you have a PayPal app their PayPal information is in there. A lot of people will have a document with all of their passwords on it saved on there,” said Dylan Nonaka, SuperGeeks.

So what should you do?

It starts with having a password on your phone.

Then, when getting rid of the phone, remove the SIM card and any other portable memory.

Hit “factory reset” on the handset and make sure it looks like it’s taking a long time.

Then just in case, change the passwords on any apps you’ve used.

When it comes time to move on or move up, really think about what’s it worth to sell the old one versus hanging on to it.

“You can trade it in and you’re gonna save $50 to $100. But think of the potential loss you have if your data goes out,” Duque said.

But as authorities and tech experts warn, there’s still a risk if you’re hanging onto the phone.

“You’ll get a new phone and you’ll just put the phone away in a drawer. And if a burglar gets into your house and finds a drawer full of phones, that could be the most valuable thing that they could steal is that cell phone sitting in your drawer ,” Nonaka said.

So what should you do then?

“Just smash it. It’s the best way,” Nonaka said.

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