5 Harmful Mistakes People Make When Getting Rid of Computers

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Once upon a time you and your oversize but semireliable laptop computer were inseparable, and you couldn’t imagine getting rid of it. Ever! Sure, it wasn’t as sleek or powerful as newer models, but it was there for you when you needed it, and even when you didn’t. But the years passed, new technology came out (or your workhorse finally croaked), and eventually you faced the harsh reality: It was time to upgrade.

But what do you do with it? Unlike random couches discarded on the side of the road, there are right—and wrong—ways to dispose of computers.

“Computers can contain personal and sensitive information, so it is important to dispose of them properly and in a secure manner,” says Walter Alcorn, vice president of Environmental Affairs and Industry at Consumer Technology Association.

Sure it’s easy to just toss your laptop, desktop, or central processing unit in the trash. But disposal of computers requires care. This will ensure your personal information stays private—and that you’re recycling in an environmentally friendly way.

Here are some mistakes to avoid when getting rid of computers.

Mistake No. 1: Not wiping the hard drive

Your computer likely has a lot of personal info on it like account numbers, tax returns, email messages, and photos—all things you don’t want in the hands of identity thieves.

A mistake is “disposing of computers without taking any measures to protect personal information,” says Bob Johnson, CEO of International Secure Information Governance & Management Association, a nonprofit industry watchdog for the records management and data destruction industry. He says it’s vital that you fully erase your hard drive.

But it’s not enough to just delete your files or move them to the trash, according to experts at the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA.

Even if the trash is emptied on your computer, the information is still there and is retrievable, according to CISA. Instead, it suggests using a disk-cleaning software, which deletes the data and then wipes the information off the hard drive entirely. CISA recommends overwriting the drive’s data multiple times using a program that writes new binary data over it.

Mistake No. 2: Forgetting to back up files

Before erasing the computer’s hard drive and restoring its original settings, it’s important to back up the files you want to keep.

Derek Meister, a Geek Squad agent at Best Buy, recommends maintaining at least two different backups, including one on a physical storage device and one in the cloud. He says physical storage devices include flash drives and external hard drives. Common cloud-based storage options include OneDrive for Windows users, iCloud for Mac users, Google Drive, or Dropbox.

“These cloud services give users the option to set up automatic backups so they can always have a current backup of their files, if needed,” says Meister.

Mistake No. 3: Not taking a hammer to it

The easiest way to prevent others from retrieving your precious information is physical destruction of your computer devices, according to CISA.

The agency says an outsourced metal destruction or licensed incineration facility can disintegrate, burn, melt, or pulverize a computer drive. But for those who want a quick DIY solution, they can drive nails, drill holes, or take a hammer to the device themselves.

“The remaining physical pieces of the drive must be small enough (at least 1/125 inches) that your information cannot be reconstructed from them,” the agency says.

Mistake No. 4: Not recycling, donating, or trading

Don’t know what to do with your old computer once you’ve saved your files and wiped the hard drive? No worries, you have options.

“The top mistake people make is not recycling or trading in their computer,” says Alcorn. “Computers contain valuable resources that, when recycled, can reenter the manufacturing process, conserve resources, and reduce our reliance on virgin materials.”

There are various options for recycling through retailers, local and county governments, and nonprofit organizations. Check with the computer manufacturer’s website for information on its recycling programs.

Mistake No. 5: Incorrect disposal

Computers often contain hazardous materials like heavy metals that are toxic and can contaminate the environment. So experts urge consumers to take time to dispose of them properly.

“Environmental sustainability is very important to us, and we work hard to keep as much junk out of the landfill as possible,” says Angela Koulyras, spokesperson for 1-800-GOT-JUNK?

If consumers are unsure of where to dispose of their computers, Koulyras says their franchises will collect e-waste and bring it to a recycling facility that either specializes or takes the items.

“Many of our locations will even take the time to further break down this e-waste equipment into parts/components that can be recycled in piles more efficiently,” says Koulyras.

If you plan to drop it off yourself, first ensure that the location you use to drop off your computer is third-party certified. You can also visit GreenerGadgets.org for responsible electronics recycling locations in your area.

“The best option for secure disposal of computers is to use a service provider that is NAID AAA–certified,” says Johnson.

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