Files Do Not Completely Disappear with the Delete Button

Identity theft has been a growing problem over the past decade as digital storage of data, along with increased Internet use, continues to grow. According to Identity Theft Info, every year 15 million U.S. residents have had their identities used fraudulently. 1 ID theft is big business, the losses associated with this type of crime is cited as being more than $50 billion a year. Over time, entire crime rings have emerged that build their empires around stealing the identities of other people. Officials say identity theft has grown to become a billion dollar, albeit illegal, industry.

Constant Data Flows

A lot of private information is filtered through personal computers. Consider the types of data that flow through, such as credit card purchases, passwords, bank information, browser history, cookies, emails, and, increasingly, medical information. If you access work information from home, sensitive business data could also be passing through your device.

Unfortunately, with electronics used in many facets of life, this has increased the risk of identity theft. It is not only personal computing devices that you need to be careful with nowadays, even copy machines store data, where if retrieved by the bad guys, can contribute to identity theft.

Also the staggering and rapid growth of mobile devices must be considered. How many of us log into websites and/or download apps without having a secured device?  What about when it comes to upgrading— which ultimately comes with trading in or selling the old device, how do you protect yourself?

Delete Button is Not Enough

If you ever decide to sell, donate or throw out your old PC, laptop or smartphone, it is important to take extra care to remove data when preparing for disposal. One common misconception is that clearing browser history, removing cookies and deleting files and emptying the recycle bin completely remove data from a device's hard drive. However, simply hitting those delete buttons is not enough to protect against identity theft. There are ways thieves can still snag sensitive information after you have deleted your files; information is stored in many places on a computing device.

IT specialist Tony Lum likened deleting files to ripping out the page of a table of contents in a traditional print book, noting the chapters are still there, just "harder to find" after the directory has been deleted. While average users won't see the files in the usual places on a computer, hackers and other individuals with the right know-how can quickly find old files without the directory.

Credit Card TheftCredit: Don Hankins/Creative Commons-Attribution

Protect Yourself

While organizational data breaches, such as businesses or public agencies, are often beyond an individual's control, people do have a little more control over their own personal data. Security of data can be increased through safer computing and Internet habits. Prior to disposing of any device, learn how to effectively remove your files/data from the computer or other gadget, or even remove its hard drive before disposing, be it donated, given away, sold or even thrown out. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers some additional tips for properly clearing a mobile device. 3

Personal Health Apps for SmartphonesCredit: IntelFreePress Creative Commons-Attribution

Consumer Reports offers some ideas too. They suggest pulling out your hard drive completely (this I've done myself), but if wanting to donate or give away a functioning computer with its hard drive intact, a lot more than a simple wipe or reset should be done. Once you get your data you want to save backed up and off your computer, a secure wipe should be done; there is special software than can help you do this task to better erase any digital footprints. With smartphones or tables, backup your data, encrypt the device, then do a factory reset. 4

While it's hard to safeguard yourself 100 percent from ID theft, learning what you can about this problem and educating yourself on preventative methods can help you raise your own personal security levels. Even though you cannot usually control on what others do with your information or how they protect it, you can take measures to control what you can. 

Unfortunately, in today's digital age where everything is going electronic, security is not guaranteed. But learning where and how your data is stored and what you can do to better protect yourself can decrease the odds of your identity or financial information being compromised. Only share information on a "need to know" basis (for instance, doctors offices almost always ask for your Social Security Number - but if you don't give it to them, they don't usually push since insurance companies have gravitated away from using these numbers as unique identifiers).

At the very least by properly clearing your own computers and mobile devices, you reduce one way thieves can get their hands on your data.

Laptop and mobile devices
Credit: PIX1861/Pixabay - Public Domain Image