15-year-old Natalie Hall didn’t expect to get much money from trading in her old, broken iPhone. She was satisfied with the $11 discount on the price of a new phone that she was offered by a mall kiosk offering trade-ins. Her focus was on her new phone, and as far as she was concerned, the old iPhone with the shattered screen was junk anyway. She didn’t think much about her old phone – until she started receiving Facebook messages from a strange man in Dubai.
The man had ended up with her old – now refurbished – phone, and all of her contacts, pictures, and social media information. The man sent her a screenshot of her camera rolls, commenting on the pictures that the phone contained. When she didn’t accept his friend requests, he logged into her Facebook and Instagram accounts, adding himself.
Natalie had to block the man from her social media accounts and change her passwords. When the media reached the man for comment, he claimed that he had since deleted Natalie’s information and sold the phone, and apologized for disturbing the teenage girl.
How Did It Happen?
Natalie and her mother had assumed that her broken phone would be recycled. The contract that they signed upon trading in her old phone had stated that it was their responsibility to remove her data, but with a broken screen, Natalie was unable to do much to wipe her device clean.
Instead of being dismantled for scrap or recycling, however, the phone was refurbished and sold, eventually winding up in Dubai, with all of Natalie’s information still intact. It’s not difficult to retrieve old information from a smartphone, even after a factory reset.
What to Do
If your phone is still operational, your best bet to avoid having your information wind up in the hands of a stranger is to make sure that you delete it yourself prior to selling or trading in your old phone. You can find instructions online for iPhone, Android, and Windows phones that are easy to follow, even for someone who isn’t an expert in cybersecurity.
However, in cases like Natalie’s, it can be more difficult. If you can’t turn the phone on, or if the screen is broken to the point that it doesn’t respond or you can’t see what you’re doing, you need another option. Your best bet is to sell it to a company that uses a software-based data eraser to remove all data from the phone before it is refurbished and sold to someone else. Make sure to ask if this will be done before completing the transaction and check the contract you sign to make certain this step is included. Don’t assume that a company will wipe your data for you if they don’t explicitly say that they will.
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