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Wipe hard drive clean or risk ID theft

You wouldn't sell your Social Security number to a friend. You wouldn't donate your bank account pass codes to a stranger. But you might do both if you chuck your old computer without first stripping the hard drive of important data.

To dump old files, you can't just take out the virtual trash. "When you empty the recycle bin, it doesn't actually delete it, it just deletes references to the file," says Jared Reelitz, technician for Computers 4 Rent, of West Palm Beach, Fla. "Just because you take the file out of the card catalog, doesn't mean the book doesn't exist."

Ordinary recovery software can restore deleted files. Proving how easy it is to recover erased data, Symantec Corp., an information security company, purchased five used PCs from various shops in March and tried to get as much sensitive information as possible from the hard drives. Although some files had been deleted, recovery tools turned up information including Social Security numbers, real estate transactions, bank account numbers and payroll information.

Old e-mails, log-in information, cookie files and personal photographs also surfaced in the data dig.

The lesson:
 

 "Even if you don't have your Social Security number in an Excel spreadsheet, you do have cookies and Internet files," says Jody Gibney, product manager for Norton SystemWorks. She cautions that simple recovery software can restore these deleted Internet fingerprints. In fact, you can find out how to undelete a file by typing in the words "deleted a file" into a search engine.

Until data gets overwritten, someone can access it without much effort, says Mike Finnie, managing consultant with Navigant Consulting.

That said, there are several ways to purge old files. It all depends on how far you want to go to protect your financial information -- and who might access your computer. If you're giving it to a friend, you probably don't need to buy government-certified software to wipe your hard drive. If you're donating or selling it to a stranger, you might want to take extra precautions.

Purging a hard drive
Light-duty wipe: Giving your old computer to someone you know? Insert your operating system's installation CD and re-install your hard drive. It won't erase old files, but it will make them more difficult to find.
Heavy-duty purge: Donating or selling your computer to a stranger? Consider downloading or purchasing wipe software. Look for programs that meet Department of Defense specifications. You can configure wipe programs to overwrite as much of your hard drive as you want.
Superpurge: Destroy your hard drive. Take a hammer to it, drill holes through it or take it to a foundry -- whatever zips your zip drive.
 

Light-duty wipe: Formatting the hard drive
If you want to leave your hard drive in a functional state for the next user -- say, a friend -- you could do something fairly cheap and easy to hide your data. Reelitz recommends running the restore CD or re-installing the operating system and formatting the hard drive.

While reformatting won't erase or overwrite old files, the process would be like "tearing out a table of contents and putting in a new one," says Finnie. All the content would remain, but you wouldn't know where to find certain documents. The data wouldn't surface in searches.

 
 
Next: "If you really want your data gone ..."
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