10 Things to Do Before You Wipe Your Computer

Before you sell or donate your used computer, how do you ensure the hard drive data is cleared? iStock/Thinkstock

You're upgrading to a new machine. Congratulations! What are you going to do with your old one?

You could sell it on eBay or Craigslist. But how do you make sure that the sensitive data on your PC — financial records, passwords to credit card Web sites, important e-mails, drunken pics from spring break — doesn't fall into the wrong hands?

Data thieves can use various programs to recover your sensitive files, even if you think you've deleted them. Just ask a British man who had to pay 100 pounds to a crook in Latvia to get back his old hard drive, after the crook mailed him a picture showing how he'd recovered his bank statements and a mortgage application. The man had been told earlier by a computer company that his faulty hard drive would be scrubbed when it was replaced [source: Arthur].

And this is not an isolated case. In 2009, British security researchers purchased 300 used computers from several countries and then perused the hard drives. They found that one-third of them still contained data from the former owners, including medical records from hospitals, proprietary business documents, and even test-launch information for ground-to-air missiles [source: Lamb].

But don't panic. Here are some tips on cleaning your computer so you can sell or donate it with no worries.

Resell or Recycle?
Don't throw out that old computer. It has a lot of materials that are hazardous in a landfill. iStock/Thinkstock

The first question is what to do with your old computer? If it's more than five years old and unable to run the latest software, the answer is probably to recycle it.

Whatever you do, don't throw your computer away. It contains a lot of materials that are hazardous in a regular landfill, including heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead [source: Tsydenova and Begtsson]. Also, many of the materials in computer parts can be extracted and reused to make new products, reducing the need to mine new materials [source: e-cycle St. Louis]. All you need to do is remove your hard drive and take the other pieces to a local electronics recycling center.

If you have a newer computer, it would be better to sell or donate it. Decide whether to wipe the drive yourself or hire a professional to do the job. You can take your PC to one of Microsoft's certified refurbishers, who'll wipe it using state-of-the-art security methods [source: Microsoft].

For a Mac, just ship it to Apple and you'll get credit at the Apple store if the company determines the computer has some monetary value [source: Apple]. However, if you're a reasonably tech-savvy person, read on to learn how to clean it yourself.

Back Up Data Onto a Portable Drive
Backing up your data on a portable drive will give you an extra copy for emergencies as well as allow you to transfer your data to your new computer. iStock/Thinkstock

If you have a PC, before you do anything else, copy all the stuff you want to keep onto a portable drive and then recopy it onto the hard drive of your new computer. That way, you have an extra copy of your data in case something goes wrong. You can also use a Microsoft utility called Windows Easy Transfer that lets you choose what you want to move over to your new machine, including documents, music, pictures, e-mail, even program settings and user accounts. Use this utility along with a special cable to hook up your old and new PCs and transfer the data directly between them [sources: Microsoft, Intel].

Another option is to transfer files from your old PC onto a portable drive by attaching the drive to a USB port. You open both your hard drive and the portable drive in separate Windows Explorer windows and then click and drag your files and directories onto the portable drive [source: Intel]. One advantage is that it also lets you do a little housekeeping and ditch stuff that you don't need anymore.

If you have a Mac, you don't need the portable drive, because you can transfer files directly from one machine to another using a FireWire or ThunderBolt cable connection. Use a program called Migration Assistant found in Applications/Utilities [source: Apple]. Finally, data on both PCs and Macs can be transferred wirelessly if they are both on the same network.

Deactivate/Deauthorize Your Software
To transfer your iTunes data, you have to deauthorize the program from your old computer and authorize it on your new one. Apple

Back in the day — we're talking about the late 1980s and early 1990s — you could easily copy your old software programs (or somebody else's, if you didn't have strong feelings about software piracy) and reinstall them on your new PC. These days, however, software manufacturers are pretty strict about making sure that you've paid for every program that you use. That means you have to deactivate your programs and then transfer the licenses to your new computer.

Go through your old computer's software and make a list of the programs that you'll keep, and figure out the process for deactivating and transferring the programs. That can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer [source: Owen].

For Adobe Photoshop, for example, go to Creative Cloud, the company's online platform, and sign out of the program on your old PC. Then, install the software on your new machine and sign in [source: Adobe]. With iTunes, you actually have to deauthorize the copy of the software on your old machine, then sign in and authorize the program on your new machine before you can transfer your settings and iTunes purchases from Apple's cloud [source: Apple].

Destroy Your Drive or Reuse It?
Make sure you replace your old hard drive with the same model. iStock/Thinkstock

As we mentioned, it's possible to dismantle a PC, take out the hard drive, and recycle the rest of the parts. But if you feel guilty about wasting the still-functional motherboard, memory chips and processor in your old machine, you can pull out the old hard drive with your data and replace it with a blank refurbished hard drive for as little as $16 [source: Newegg].

Installing a new hard drive really isn't much more difficult than plugging and unplugging cables and turning a few screws. The key is to replace the old drive with one that's the same type.

Today, most hard drives use a data connection known as SATA, but if you have an old PC, it might use an earlier technology known as IDE. You can easily tell the difference, because a SATA drive uses a pin-less, L-shaped connector, while IDE drives have a whole bunch of pins on their connectors. Make sure that you pick one with the same physical dimensions. Some big desktop systems use 3.5-inch (8.9-centimeter) drives, while more compact desktop PCs and laptops generally favor 2.5-inch (6.3-centimeter) drives [source: Smith].

Determine the Best Way to Destroy Your Drive
Smashing your hard drive with a hammer will definitely destroy the data but there are more elaborate ways too. iStock/Thinkstock

There are differing opinions about how to do this. Some suggest simply yanking out your hard drive, slipping on a pair of goggles for safety, and then smashing it several times with a hammer [source: Lamb]. Others recommend more elaborate measures — drilling holes or pounding nails through the drive; throwing it in a fire; cooking it in a microwave oven; or soaking it in diluted hydrochloric or muriatic acid. That all sounds a bit fiendish and can be hazardous to your health as well (acid baths give off toxic fumes).

A comparatively safer method involves disassembling the drive, removing the platters, and then sanding or grinding their surfaces to make them unreadable. You may have to invest $20 or so in a special set of screwdriver bits to remove the small screws that hold the drive's case in place, though you could also try a large flat-head screwdriver to pry it off [source: O'Reilly].

If you're a fan of the TV series "Breaking Bad," you may have seen the episode in which the characters park a powerful magnet next to a police evidence room to destroy incriminating data on a drive. In real life, that process, called degaussing, probably wouldn't work unless you had a really, really powerful magnet and focused its field very precisely [source: Lynn].

Have a Copy of the Operating System to Reinstall
If you don’t have your backup copy of your Windows operating system, you can get one from the Microsoft Web site. Microsoft

Whether you're going to tear out your old drive and replace it; or wipe and reuse your old one, no computer will run without an operating system. If you have a PC that's running, say, Windows 7, it probably came with a backup disk that you can use to reinstall the operating system after you've done your cleanup.

If not, don't worry. You can snag another copy from Microsoft via the Digital River Web site, and install it on a USB drive with at least 4 gigabytes of space, using the Windows 7/USB/DVD download tool. To activate the software, you'll need the Windows 7 product key, which should be on a sticker on your computer case. If you can't find it, download a free program called Magical Jelly Bean Keyfinder that will locate the product key for you [source: Arndt].

If you've got a really old Mac, you'll need a disk with the operating system installation files as well. But if you've got a recent release such as Lion or Mountain Lion, you don't need one. Instead, after you erase the data on your drive, you can run a utility that will download the OS from Apple and reinstall it. We'll give you more detailed instructions later [source: Arndt].

Erase Your Data from the Hard Drive
In addition to deleting your files, you should use a software program designed to scrub your hard drive clean. iStock/Thinkstock

You can't just rely upon deleting your files, because security experts say the stuff is recoverable by a sophisticated data thief. In fact, traces of data may remain, even if your repartition and reformat the drive. That's why you should use one of the numerous software programs designed to obliterate your information, such as Darik's Boot and Nuke (DBAN), DriveScrubber, or Lavasoft File Shredder. The latter has the advantage of allowing you to wipe out sensitive data but leave other stuff that doesn't put you at risk [source: Lamb].

With a Mac, this process is easier. Just boot up your computer from the recovery partition by holding down the command and R keys as it restarts. Then open Disk Utility. Under the Erase tab's security options, choose 7-Pass Erase, which will overwrite your data seven times, obliterating it. This is going to take several hours, so bring along your tablet and read an e-book or play Words With Friends [source: Arndt].

Reformat the Hard Drive
Once you reformat your hard drive, all traces of old data are gone. iStock/Thinkstock

This is the step that's a little scary, because of its finality. Once you reformat a drive, for most practical purposes you wipe clean the remaining traces of data, the software programs and the operating system. On the other hand, that isn't necessarily a bad thing, because you're also going to undo any software problems and destroy any malware that's infected the PC. So eventually, once you reinstall a new copy of the operating system, it may run even better than before [source: Phelps].

The first step is to repartition your hard drive. You can do this by opening the Windows Control Panel and clicking System and Security, followed by Administrative Tools, and double-clicking on Computer Management. You'll probably have to provide the password for your main user account, the one with administrator privileges that allows you to alter the computer's settings. Once you do then go to the Storage menu, and click Disk Management and then New Simple Volume. That will bring up a wizard program that will guide you through the rest of the process [source: Microsoft]. The process could take a few hours to complete.

Reinstall the Operating System
Use your Windows disk to reinstall the operating system on your PC; for a Mac, you can reinstall through Apple's cloud. Microsoft

Normally, if you need to reinstall Windows because of a computer malfunction, you simply go to the Advanced Recovery Methods menu in Control Panel and then reconstruct the operating system from a recovery image that your manufacturer has installed in a separate partition on your drive. But remember that you've wiped all of that out. So you're going to need to use an installation disk. If you don't have the one that the computer came with, go to Microsoft for a copy. (Check page 5 for more info).

With a Mac running OS Lion or Mountain Lion, this is even easier. After you've completed erasing your data, quit Disk Utility, and make sure that you're still connected to the Internet. Then chose the Reinstall OS X option, and Apple's cloud will do the rest. If you're running an earlier version of OS X, you'll need to put a backup system disk in the drive and restart the computer while holding down the C key [source: Arndt].

Make the Computer Shine
You can use a special brush to get the dirt out of the keyboard or just give it a gentle shake and dust with a cloth. Hemera/Thinkstock

OK, by this point, you've taken care to ensure the security of your data. But while it might be clean on the inside, the buyer, assuming you have one, isn't going to like getting a machine that's covered with fingerprints and encrusted with pizza remnants.

So be considerate and give your old machine a good external cleaning, using a soft damp cloth and compressed air to get particles out from the crevices in your keyboard. If it's a desktop, you can also unscrew the door on the case and use the compressed air to clean out dust bunnies on the inside. For a laptop, carefully turn the machine upside down and gently shake out the crumbs and dust in the keyboard.

Finally, use a soft glasses cloth to wipe away smears and fingerprints from the screen. You'll feel better that you did [source: Asch].


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Author's Note: 10 Things to Do Before You Wipe Your Computer

I've owned a lot of computers over the years, and naturally, like anyone else, I'm concerned about protecting my personal data from falling into the wrong hands. For a long time I've used add-on security programs to encrypt and password-protect sensitive files, which gives me a layer of protection even if I lose a laptop or have one stolen. I've never sold one of my old PCs to a stranger. Instead, I usually keep them around as backups, or else give them to my son or my wife to use. In most instances, they eventually wear out or become obsolete. What I then usually do is take out the hard drive, stick it on a shelf in my basement, and recycle the remaining parts. Someday I'll get around to disposing those drives, I promise.

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