How to dispose of an old computer and thwart identity thieves

By Allstate

Last updated: January 1

Need to get rid of an old computer or other device? Taking certain precautions first can help protect your sensitive information. After all, your computer may store your bank records, Social Security number, passwords, tax records or other personal information. Physical destruction of your device or hard drive is one method to help protect your info, but it may not be the most practical option if you plan to donate or sell the device. Below are some steps to consider taking no matter how you plan to dispose of an old device:

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Back up your computer files before disposal

Start the process by making a copy of your files on an external hard drive or a new computer. (Microsoft has suggestions on how to do that on a computer running Windows; and here are Apple's recommendations for backing up your Mac's hard drive.) You should also review any software you have installed on your old computer and research licensing rights. According to TechSoup, you may be able to install some software on multiple computers. But, if not, you'll likely want to remove the software from your old computer so you can retain it for a new one.

Do more than delete your files

Avoid the temptation to just delete your files because, according to the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), it isn't effective. That's because even if you move files to the recycle bin on your computer and then "empty the trash," the information is still there and can still be retrieved, says the agency.

A better alternative, according to CISA, is to use a program that deletes the data and then overwrites, or wipes, the information from the hard drive. CISA recommends that users overwrite the drive's data multiple times using a program that uses all zeros in its layering. Windows computers may have a built-in tool you can use to securely overwrite data. Apple offers instructions for how to clean their hard drives.

Consumer Reports also says securely erasing files can take several hours or days to complete, so keep that in mind when planning to dispose of the device.

Should you trade in or donate your computer?

When your device is clean, consider what you'll do with it next. You could pass it along to a neighbor or a friend, trade it in or consider donating it.

Many manufacturer- and retailer-sponsored programs will take your drop-offs or mail-ins and then dismantle the computers for materials recycling. The Environmental Protection Agency offers a list of computer manufacturer and retailer programs that do just that.

If your computer is relatively new, though, you might consider selling or trading it in instead. There are hosts of refurbishers that recondition and upgrade old computers for resale, or for use by people in under-served communities. Microsoft has a list of recommended refurbishers with both commercial and charitable objectives. Meanwhile, Apple has its own refurbish program, and may offer a credit toward another purchase or a gift card for devices it deems viable. If your computer is not reusable, they will recycle it for no charge.

Whatever you decide, remember to remove all the data from your computer before you send it off to its new home.

Smash the hard drive before recycling

When you are planning to recycle a computer, banging a tool against your hard drive to dispose of your computer can be a satisfying way to take out some frustration on a helpless piece of old technology. And, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) also says it's one way to help protect sensitive data that may be stored inside. According to the federal tech agency, the goal is to bend or break your hard drive (into two or more pieces) to make it hard for someone to recover the data.

To start, disconnect all power sources from the computer. Once you've found and removed the hard drive, the NIST recommends these safety precautions:

  • Remove any steel-shielding material or mounting brackets from the computer's hard drive.
  • Put the drive on a surface that won't be damaged.
  • Wear appropriate safety gear, such as protective goggles.

Once these preparations are made, it's time to smash the hard drive. The NIST says you should hit it hard enough on the top to make sure you damage the disk surfaces. You should also be sure to damage the ports that would allow it to connect to another computer.

With the proper steps, you can safely dispose of your old computer and have some peace of mind knowing your sensitive data has been removed.