Erasing old cell phones as you unclutter them

If you have a fairly recent cell phone that you want to sell or donate, it’s pretty easy to remove your personal information (address book, messages, photos, etc.) from the phone before disposing of it. You can get the how-to information from your cell phone manufacturer or cellular provider, or you can find information online from various other sources.

In general, the steps will involve removing any SIM cards and SD cards, doing a hard reset (also known as a factory reset), and setting up encryption if needed (especially on Android phones). To be even more secure, you can load junk data onto your phone and then do another factory reset.

But what if it’s an old phone and you don’t have the charger, you don’t know the password, or both? These phones tend to get shoved into drawers or boxes to be dealt with at a later time — which never comes.

How many old phones do people have laying around? To get an idea, look at what Daniel Otis reported in the Motherboard website:

According to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, which advocates on behalf of the industry, 62 per cent of Canadians have an average of 2.1 phones that they’re not using. That equals more than 47 million unused cell phones collecting dust.

If you’re dealing with phones like this and you’d like to finally unclutter them, the following are a few suggestions.

Missing the password? Try the default lock code or just do a factory reset.

Leaving a default lock code in place is a bad idea, but enough people do it that you might as well try it. Many years ago, the person who used the phone might not have been as security-conscious as most of us are now.

The default code on many Nokia phones is 12345. The code on some LG phones is 0000 (four zeroes) and on other LG phones it’s the last four digits of your phone number. Other phones might use 1234.

But the easiest option might be to do a factory reset (which should be possible even without the password), since you want to remove all of the data on the phone, anyway.

Missing the charger? See if someone else has one.

A vendor’s store may have the charger you’re lacking and might be willing to charge your phone enough that you can follow the standard steps for erasing your phone. Or ask around on sites like Nextdoor, where you might find someone who would be happy to lend you the charger you need.

Still stuck? Physically destroy the phone.

If you can’t get into the phone to erase the data, you can always resort to physically destroying the phone. Some people distrust the software erasing process and prefer hardware destruction, even though it could mean a perfectly usable phone gets destroyed. It’s all a matter of what data you have on the phone and how you evaluate the risks of having that data stolen.

While you could attempt to destroy the phone yourself — if you know what you’re doing — many people will find paying a reputable service provider to shred the phone to be the wiser choice.

Some local shredding companies will shred cell phones, including companies with certification from the National Association for Information Destruction (NAID). You can search for a company through the NAID website, although there’s no way to identify which ones work with cell phones as opposed to just paper and storage media such as computer hard drives. Alternatively, you could just use your favorite search engine.

For example, the following are a few companies that provide cell phone shredding services:

2 Comments for “Erasing old cell phones as you unclutter them”

  1. posted by WilliamB on

    Some jurisdictions and employers have Shred Days; some of these include small electronics. Most secure practice is to watch them shred your stuff. If they drive away with it, you’re trusting them to do the job right – how much do you trust?

    Another possible source of cordage is stores that fix phones and broken screens.

  2. posted by Emily on

    I recently upgraded a four year old iPhone after the battery died for good. Even though it couldn’t be turned on I wanted to destroy it, worrying that someone would put a new battery in it. So I removed the SIM card and put in a plastic grocery bag. Took it out to the concrete driveway and took a hammer to it, it was quite satisfying! Maybe not environmentally correct but nobody will be able to recover private info from Evernote, etc.

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