8 steps you can take to safeguard personal data on your computer to prevent identity theft: Internet Scambusters #341
Used computers, when they change hands, are a key target for identity theft, so it's important to understand the steps you need to take to prevent identity theft.
In fact, when you sell your PC or give it away, you can erase confidential information, but it's not as straightforward as it sounds. And when your computer is stolen, so too are your data.
In this issue we have 8 tips for you to protect your personal information and cut the risk of identity theft when someone else gets your PC.
On to today's main topic...
Take the Right Steps to Prevent Identity Theft When Your PC is Replaced, Lost or Stolen
There's probably only one failsafe way to totally prevent identity theft when you sell or give away your computer. That's by removing the hard drive first and putting it through a commercial crushing machine!
But maybe that's a bit over-the-top for your needs, especially if you want to give away a complete system for someone else to use.
And anyway, it doesn't take into account your security needs if you "give" your PC away involuntarily -- that is, if it's lost or stolen.
So, in this issue we take a closer look at how to safeguard the personal details on your PC so that they stay confidential no matter what happens when you are separated from your computer.
4 tips on how to prevent identity theft when you sell, give away or recycle your computer
These days, it seems, we replace our computers more frequently than ever, as software and Internet activity demand more powerful machines.
But we can't simply trash them. It's environmentally unsound. Recycling is the name of the game -- with many retailers and disposal authorities prepared to do the job free of charge.
Or maybe there's a person or organization whose computing needs are not as demanding as ours, who would be happy to give our PCs an extended lease on life.
Either way, we need to be sure that the confidential information on that computer doesn't fall into the wrong hands, feeding an identity theft scam.
Even if you're giving your PC to a friend or relative, you don't know what they will do with it after they're finished and it could still end up with a potential for identify theft.
So here are 4 things you can do to make sure that doesn't happen:
- Remove the hard drive or drives. This is the most drastic solution. It's quick and relatively easy to do (do an online search on "remove hard drive").But you're still left with the data-packed drive. Plus, opening up your computer has risks. You may unknowingly damage other parts -- or yourself!If you do choose this route, you can still erase the drive later by connecting it to another computer with a special USB cable (search for "USB hard drive adapter cable").
- Erase part or all of the drive and leave it in your PC.On the face of it, this seems easy -- just a couple of clicks -- but there are two catches:i) Erasing the drive, by reformatting it or deleting individual folders and files doesn't actually delete the data. This only removes filenames from the drive's master index and the files themselves can still be easily read with file recovery software.ii) You can't reformat your main drive (usually the "C" drive on a PC) while it's in use helping to run your computer.
You need special software (some of it free -- search for "file eraser" or "erase hard drive") that totally obliterates files, overwriting with zeroes several times.
Follow the articles at a trusted site, such as zdnet.com or pcworld.com. There are several good free utilities that will do this.
Mac users should use the built-in Disk Utility. Perform a secure erase of all free drive space.
And if you're erasing your main drive, as mentioned above, you'll have to boot (launch) your computer from a specially prepared CD since you'll be wiping out your operating system (e.g., Windows).
- Erase just the data and personal information. Doing this will leave your operating system and maybe other programs intact for the next user.Again, use a dedicated file deletion program to nuke your personal data (after copying it or backing it up for your new machine, of course!) folder by folder.Beware, though, that many programs you might leave on (especially Internet browsers) may retain personal information, like passwords or details of sites you visited.You should be able to either uninstall these separately or delete personal information from them.
- Remove other media. You checked that you didn't leave a disk in the computer's CD/DVD drive, didn't you? Or how about that Compact Flash or Secure Digital card or memory stick in the card reader?Or perhaps you're donating an external hard drive or some old-style floppy or Zip disks along with the machine. If so, make sure they're erased as outlined above.Is there more than one hard drive *inside* your PC and if so, are they all wiped clean? Your deletion software will tell you how many drives you have and where they are.
Our advice: Option 2, using a special CD to completely erase all disks, is the safest route to prevent identity theft. You can always hand over the operating system disks to the new owner and let them reinstall it.
(And, do Number 4, of course)
Protecting your identity if your computer is lost or stolen
Sometimes you don't get the chance to erase anything before someone else takes ownership of your PC -- that's when it's stolen.
We're not just talking about notebooks here either. Every day, thousands of desktop PCs are stolen from burglarized homes.
Other times, you may knowingly hand it over to someone else, like loaning it out or taking it into a repair shop.
And what's on your hard drive? Tax returns? Letters? Scanned documents, including bills with account numbers. Emails? Records of websites visited? These are all great raw material for identity theft.
Here are 4 steps you can take to minimize the risk of that information falling into the wrong hands -- in other words, four more ways to prevent identity theft.
- Prevent unauthorized access.Use a log-on password to access your machine -- or these days you can even get a fingerprint reader or a "lock" that has to be plugged into a USB port.If someone steals the machine, they will have to reformat the hard drive, making your data at least less accessible.If it has a lock, they won't even be able to do that. The machine can be rendered useless in the wrong hands.
Our advice: Start using a log-on password or other lock today.
- Password protect or encrypt sensitive folders and files.As a minimum, use the password protection that comes with many computer applications (like Microsoft Word) to protect confidential documents.Where this is not available, or not enough, use specialist software that will use stronger password systems and encryption (a secret code) to make them inaccessible.By the way, ideally, don't store password details on your PC. If you do, they should be encrypted and protected with a master password.
For more on passwords, see this Scambusters article: Get Tough With Computer Passwords and Secret Questions.
TrueCrypt is a popular, free encryption program, but you need to take the time to learn how to use it properly. It works for both PCs and Macs.
- Unselect or deselect "Remember Me" options on Internet site log-on pages.This simple measure will stop thieves and other users from assuming your identity, which they could otherwise do just by firing up your web browser.
- Store data and as much personal information as possible (including email) on a removable drive that you unplug and keep separate from your computer, even at home, when you're not using it.Things you can then do:- Take it into your bedroom overnight.- Lock it in a safe or even a safety deposit box when you're going to be away from home.
- Keep it in a more secure location, like an inner pocket, when you're traveling with your notebook computer.
These few simple steps can ensure your data remains safe when your computer changes hands. OK, it adds a bit of bother to the whole process, but the trade-off is the extra peace of mind you'll get from preventing identity theft as a result. Well worth the effort!
Time to close -- we're off to take a walk. See you next week.