Avoid cyber crooks and protect your personal information

By Kimberly Holmes – bio | email

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19)  - Sharonville resident Janet Richer wants to recycle her old computer without recycling her information.

One Wednesday night, she brought it to the Cincinnati Computer Cooperative or CCC. It's where workers will either take computers apart and send it to computer heaven or refurbish it, getting it ready for a new owner.

"It was important to me to make sure that everything got off of it, because I didn't know how to do that," said Richer.

Workers at CCC said they do know how to erase everything off of your hard drives, but we wanted to see what could happen if Richer took her hard drive to a different organization or even just threw it out in the trash. How much data is left on your hard drive even after you delete everything?

"I took off all my personal memos and things like that," Richer said. "I did as much as I could. I even had a couple of people look at it and see if they could figure out how to get everything off, but they couldn't."

We took the computer to the experts at Greater Cincinnati Computer or GCC.

Company technicians work hard day in and day out recovering data for customers who accidentally hit the delete button. Technicians took out the hard drive, and hooked up the unit to their system. They ran several programs designed to recover data.

"The previous owner felt that they had deleted everything," said Jim Kimmick, director of operations at GCC. "When I plugged the drive in, a slave drive is what they call it, I was able to see all their programs and files that were on the system."

Kimmick recovered a slideshow presentation and a picture -- no damaging data, but that was just the first program.

"I'm now running a more thorough program which will be able to pull back everything they've deleted from the last six months to one year," Kimmick said. "We'll be able to see anything or everything they've deleted."

The process took hours.

"Yeah, this is the stuff that I found that was deleted," said Steve Isaacs, a GCC senior technician. "This is her quickbook file. Jan Richer. Would that be her name?"

Yes. It is.

Isaacs was also able to recover a number of pictures, but the next discovery shocked us all.

"Then I found the 2009 Richer, J, 1040 tax form," said Isaacs. "And then her tax return. It has an amount. It has an address."

Yes. Richer's tax return was still on her hard drive.

Technicians used programs that anyone could buy off the Internet. They ranged between $100 to $200.

We then visited Richer again, and told her what we found on her hard drive.

"Oh, well, that makes me upset because I did not think all of that was left on there," Richer said. "As much as I searched, and I had a couple of people search, I couldn't find anything."

In Simson Garfinkel's book "Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century," he proves the problem. The author bought several hard drives off of eBay. One was once owned by a medical center. Garfinkel wrote that the drive contained 31,000 credit card numbers.

So what can you do?

"Generally speaking, we recommend they pull the hard drive out, put it in the file cabinet in case there's files they want off of it at a later date," Kimmick said. "Or pull the hard drive out and take a big hammer to it."

Or just make sure you turn it over to a reputable organization.

Managers at CCC said they use government grade software to delete information off soon-to-be-recycled hard drives. They crush the ones that are just too old or corrupted by sticking it into a machine that's locked up in a cage for security reasons.

"No computer is sent downstream to a recycler with a hard drive in it," said Walt Fischer, CCC Chairman. "We remove it and crush it, or wipe it before it goes out of this building."

After our test, we returned Richer's computer to CCC so they could recycle it without recycling her information.

Again, experts say the best way to ensure you're not passing your information on to someone else is to destroy your computer.

If you're not comfortable bashing your hard drive with a hammer, consider hanging on to it. Each one is about the size of a 5x7" picture and doesn't weigh much.

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