Do Not Tell Your Cell Phones Any Secrets

Are you aware that second-hand cell phones can surrender credit card numbers, banking passwords, business secrets and even evidence of adultery? Selling your old cell phone once you upgrade to a fancier model can be like handing over your diaries. All sorts of sensitive information piles up inside our cell phones, and deleting it may be more difficult than you think.

A popular practice among sellers, resetting the phone, often means sensitive information appears to have been erased. But it can be resurrected using specialized yet inexpensive software found on the Internet.

A company in McLean, VA bought 10 phones on eBay this summer to test phone security tools it sells for businesses. The phones all were fairly sophisticated models capable of working with corporate e-mail systems. Curious software experts at Trust Digital resurrected information on nearly all the used phones, including the racy exchanges between guarded lovers.

The phones contained:

  • One company’s plans to win a multimillion-dollar federal transportation contract.
  • E-mails about another firm’s $50,000 payment for a software license.
  • Bank accounts and passwords.
  • Details of prescriptions & receipts for one worker’s utility payments.

Experts said giving away old phones is common place. Consumers upgrade their cell phones on average about every 18 months.

The 10 phones that were studied represented popular models from leading manufacturers. All the phones stored information on flash memory chips, the same technology found in digital cameras and some music players. Flash memory is inexpensive and durable. But it is slow to erase information in ways that make it impossible to recover. So manufacturers compensate with methods that erase data less completely but don’t make a phone seem sluggish.

Phone manufacturers usually provide instructions for safely deleting a customer’s information, but it is not always convenient or easy to find. Some companies put directions deep within it’s web site for what it calls a “zero out reset”. It involves holding down 3 buttons simultaneously while pressing a 4th tiny button on the back of the phone, but it is so awkward to do that even one company says it may take two people. It is said that this company made the process deliberately clumsy because it does not want customers accidentally erasing their information.

The tools are out there for hackers and thieves to rummage through deleted data on used phones.

People are just not aware how much they are exposing themselves, this is more than something you pick up and talk on. THIS IS YOUR IDENTITY. There are people out there really looking to exploit this.

A computer security expert said phone owners should decide whether to auction or sell their used equipment for a few dollars – and risk revealing their secrets – or effectively dispose of them.

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