Why You Should Destroy Your Old Cell Phone

Frankie Wallace


Today, just about everyone has a cell phone, with expanded mobile options that have heavily influenced culture in countless ways, from fashion to software development. Moreover, it is common to get a new cell phone every couple of years or so, especially if a newer, better model has come out.

However, one area that has suffered as a result of advancements in mobile devices is cybersecurity. One thing you probably don’t think about when you get a new phone is how at risk you are for cyber attacks and identity theft on your old phone. Today, we’ll take a look at how your old phones may leave your data at risk, as well as the best methods for destroying your phone.

Your Old Phone Is Still Exposed

Even if you have a brand new phone and you have moved all of your information over to it, it is still possible for hackers to get data from your previous phone. If you lose track of your phone at work, give it to a friend, or turn it in to a recycling program, you could be the victim of identity theft. Without a plan for destroying your phone when you are done with it, you will have to always worry that your information will be hacked at some point.

There is a lot of data that remains on your phone even after you think you have wiped it clean. This data can lead to identity theft, but even if it doesn’t, some people simply do not want their personal lives exposed to strangers. Data that can be recovered from a reset or wiped phone includes:

  • Contacts
  • Emails
  • Financial information
  • Photos and videos
  • Search engine history
  • Text messages
  • User identities

While iPhones will get rid of most of this data for good after a reset, that does not mean it is impossible to get the information back — it’s just harder. When it comes to Android phones, it is much easier to get information back even if you have cleared it. While wiping your phone is a good first step, it’s not a surefire way to protect your information.

What Happens When a Cell Phone Is Hacked?

Some people think that identity theft will never happen to them, or that even if a hacker does break into their info, they won’t find anything too compromising to steal. However, there are all sorts of things that hackers can do with your information. For example, they can apply for credit cards or loans, which can affect your credit. They can also hack your online shopping accounts and charge purchases to your account.

It’s common to think that if your financial information isn’t on your phone, then hackers cannot do anything, even if they are able to circumvent your phone’s security. This is not true, though. Just one small piece of information, like one of your passwords, can be enough to steal more information — and possibly even your identity.

There is an entire black market for Instagram handles, which can be sold for up to $5,000. Hijackers commandeer phone numbers in order to take control of the Instagram names. This happened to Rachel Ostlund, who also lost control of her other accounts as well (Amazon, PayPal, etc.), all because the hackers gained control of her phone number. It’s as easy as the hacker calling the cell phone company, posing as the owner of the phone number (verifying with something like the individual’s address) and having their number transferred to a new SIM card.

Wiping Your Phone is Not Enough

Even if you have completely wiped your phone and performed a factory reset, it’s still possible for skilled hackers to find that information. Just about every great IT professional will be able to get the data back after you have cleared your phone. Think of it this way: Some IT professionals are tasked with the specific job of recovering data from a phone that’s been destroyed or wiped and reset. Hackers can do the same, typically with malicious intent.

When you reset your phone to factory settings, what’s really removed is the reference to the data, not the actual data itself. The data will remain on your cell phone, even if it’s difficult for the layman to find. The data stays there until it’s overwritten by something else — there’s no such thing as a truly “cleared” phone. Therefore, unless the phone is then filled up again with random, unimportant data to replace the original data, it won’t really be cleared.

Solve the Problem by Destroying Your Cell Phone

Think of your phone as a small computer — it has pretty much the same private information as your computer does, which puts the need for security into perspective. In order to keep your data and information as safe as possible, the best solution is to destroy your phone.

However, before you go crazy and kill your old cell phone, encrypt the storage. This will ensure that your data can’t be recovered, even if someone happens to get their hands on your old phone. On Android phones, you can encrypt the data in the settings.

Now, for the main event: How, exactly, do you destroy your old phone? Any way you like. Step on it until it’s in pieces, take a hammer to it, or throw it on the grill. You don’t want to just smash the screen and the body, though. Don’t neglect these key steps:

  • Remove the SIM card, as well as any memory cards. Physically destroy these as well.
  • Format your phone, erasing all content and settings.
  • Ensure that any unused accounts associated with your old phone are terminated and/or moved over to your new device.

Being thorough in this process can save you a lot of potential heartache down the road. Taking the time to do this correctly can protect your data.

Recycling Your Cell Phone

You can still recycle your cell phone even if your goal is to destroy it. The key is to bring it to a recycling center yourself and ask if you can watch while it’s destroyed. If you can’t, bring it elsewhere. When you mail your phone to a company that says they’ll destroy it, you have no idea how many hands your phone passes through before it’s actually destroyed for good (if it ever is). There are too many chances for it to fall into the wrong hands.

More Ways to Keep Your Phone Safe

There are a number of ways to keep your phone safe from hacks, whether you’re still using your old one or it’s in your drawer for the time being:

  • Install all software updates as soon as they are available. Many of these updates include patches for security vulnerabilities.
  • Do not jailbreak or root your cell phone. People do this in order to make changes to their phone or use it on other networks, but during the process you may remove important security safeguards.
  • Don not install third-party apps. You may not be using your phone for cell service any longer, but you still may use it for things like listening to music or playing games. Avoid installing apps that aren’t from the official app store.
  • Change the settings so that your phone locks within a minute of non-use. You can also set it so that a fingerprint or facial recognition is required to unlock it. These methods are still possible to hack, but they’re more foolproof than a basic number code.
  • Remove all of the apps you do not use. Also remove the saved passwords for those apps. Change the settings so that your old phone doesn’t automatically log in to websites and apps, too.

Even if you’re no longer using your old phone, these tips will keep it safe until you decide what you’re going to do with it.

Nearly 70 percent of Americans own smartphones, and that number has grown over time. In 2005, only 65 percent of consumers had cell phones. Phones are beginning to practically replace desktop computers. You wouldn’t leave your credit card, Social Security card, or passport somewhere unguarded. Therefore, you should treat your cell phone the same way. While it’s tempting to sell or recycle your old cell phone, the safest option is to completely destroy it.


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