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Many Coloradans Leave Behind Personal Info On Hard Drives

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Shaun Pearman of Action Recycling Center and CBS4's Jodi Brooks inspect a computer. (credit: CBS)

Shaun Pearman of Action Recycling Center and CBS4′s Jodi Brooks inspect a computer. (credit: CBS)

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Written By Jodi Brooks

DENVER (CBS4) – The high demand for a cheaper and faster computer has consumers upgrading every 2 to 3 years, leading to a whole lot of unwanted computers.

Before you sell your computer, recycle it or just give it away, experts warn that you need to erase your hard drive.

Cary Johnson, a fraud expert with the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office, said parting ways with a hard drive that hasn’t been erased or destroyed “is kind of like keeping your valuables and personal information in a safe downstairs basement and leaving the door wide open all the time.”

CBS4 took a look at the hard drives of some old computers at the Action Recycling Center warehouse in Denver to see what kind of information is being left behind.

Truckloads of old computers are brought to Action Recycling Center each month. CBS4 picked three machines at random to see what might have been left on the hard drive.

Jefferson County DA Forensic Analyst Monica Stalter helped CBS4 out with the process. Examining the first computer, Stalter said “it’s a family computer.” She immediately found pictures — lots of pictures. Pictures of people, pictures of pets, and lots and lots of files and folders.

Stalter also found a MySpace account user name and password.

“Usually once you have the password to one account you pretty much have the password to everybody’s account,” Stalter said.

On another hard drive, Stalter found more personal information. She suspects the computer once belonged to the mom, and then the kids either were given it or took it over.

Stalter said she found the mom’s “tax information, her Social Security information is on here, resume is on here.” She also found instant messages between children and lots of pictures of children.

“As a parent that is really very scary, that someone would leave that information out so carelessly,” Stalter said.

The hard drives continued to reveal more personal information.

Even stuff that was put in the trash was easily restored.

“I could tell you where they work. I could tell you their Social Security numbers,” Stalter said.

Not all the information on the hard drives belong to the computer owner. On the final hard drive there were more than 100 files of work-related customer information, including trust accounts, bank accounts, Social Security numbers and physical addresses in all of the documents.

“I’m really pretty surprised that people just leave their computer information so vulnerable,” Stalter said.

When the computers were returned to the Action Recycling Center, spokesman Shaun Pearman said he wasn’t surprised by the findings.

“Nowadays everything is on a computer. The most personal, intimate information is there,” Pearman said.

Removing the hard drive is one way to protect that personal, intimate information.

Or, for $5 at the Action Recycling Center you can have your hard drive degaussed. That’s an electro-magnetic process that will destroy everything on the hard drive.

Johnson said “the key is don’t keep things there that you don’t want someone to inadvertently find.”

Additional Resources

To remove your own hard drive, it’s just a matter of removing the cover and a couple of screws.

To have your hard drive degaussed, take your computer to the Action Recycling Center in Wheat Ridge at 7610 W. 42 Avenue. Their website is recyclingmycomputer.com.

You can also download free encryption software on your computer. These are the links provided by the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office:

truecrypt.org — encryption for windows (XP and above, Linux and Mac OSX)

dban.org — download wipes hard drives for most non RAID computers

Both programs provide good documentation. Read the documentation before running these programs.

Finally, if you’ve got a child over 10 here’s a great site to show them how to pull apart a hard drive to get the rare earth magnets out of it

instructables.com

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