Mobile phones are becoming ever-more advanced in their performance and capabilities, and to get hold of one of the latest devices without paying a large up-front fee users are getting tied into long-term 18 or 24 month contracts by providers. Two years is a long time to wait in tech-circles however, and with increasingly slim line, more powerful and more versatile handsets being released every day many users are sidestepping contract obligations by purchasing a new model from their own pocket. Part of the reason why this is possible is that good money can be raised by selling a second-hand mobile phone on an auction site such as eBay, or by sending it off for recycling at a site such as Envirophone.
Just last week the News of the World re-launched its scheme to purchase unwanted handsets and claimed its readers earned £40,000 in seven days. Some modern smart phones can scoop upwards of £300, so it’s easy to see why this would appeal.
The flexibility of open-source operating systems such as Android, the ability to check emails and web sites on the move and the wide range of applications available to help increase productivity or add convenience when out and about has made modern phones a must have item for many, and led users of older models unwilling to see out a contract.
Gaming is another big pull – recent research from PopCap, one of the most popular providers of mobile-based games, claims that playing the latest titles is one of the biggest reasons for the surge in recycling. The study found that 55% of games are now played on smartphones – up 38% from 2009. This far outweighs the 22% played on a PC and 20% on consoles, so it’s easy to see why having the latest handset is so appealing.
Whatever the reason for selling or recycling a phone, one potential danger that seems to have eluded many is the fact that sensitive data such as contact information, passwords, bank details and more are stored on the device and if not properly deleted will then be accessible to the person who receives it.
How big is the problem?
When selling a second-hand computer or laptop, few users would be foolish enough to leave files and personal data stored on the hard drive before handing it over. This philosophy seems slow to migrate to smartphones however, and with recent issues surrounding security gathering momentum it’s something that needs to be addressed.
A recent study by life assistance company CPP found that 54% of second-hand phones contained personal data. During the research it purchased 35 mobiles and found personal information such as text messages, emails and even bank details on 19 of them. In addition, 50 SIM cards were purchased, with 27 containing similar information, and this is despite 81% of users claiming that they delete all personal data.
Mobile data expert for CPP Danny Harrison stated “Consumers are upgrading their mobiles more than ever, and it is imperative people take personal responsibility to properly manage their own data." Harrison claims the report should be a “shocking wake up call” for consumers, and that it "shows how mobile phones can inadvertently cause people to be careless with their personal data".
What can you do about it?
It does seem as though consumers are rather belatedly waking up to the importance of safeguarding data on a mobile device, but in many cases it may be that users do not know how to erase sensitive data, or do not cover all the bases. Run through the checklist below to ensure that when a phone leaves your hands there’s nothing stored on it that could come back to haunt you.
• The most important and most obvious thing to do if you’re selling or recycling a phone is to back up all contact information and if necessary, text messages, photos, appointments and documents. This can be done through the proprietary software supplied with a mobile phone by connecting the device to a computer wirelessly or via a USB cable, and some modern security suites allow users to back up vital data to a secure website.
• If you’re planning on using an existing SIM card in a new phone, make sure that all contacts are saved to the SIM, and then erase the contacts from the phone itself. This is usually quite easy to do through the on-screen menus in the Contacts application.
• Make sure you remove the SIM card and any internal storage such as a microSD card from the phone before you package it up for sale! This sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget, particularly if you’re recycling a device.
• Delete all messages from the phone (once they are backed up to a computer, if need be) and ensure that all folders – including the Inbox, Sentbox, Draft folder and any separate folders that may be used to store MMS messages and emails are checked as well. Again, it should be fairly straightforward to “select all” messages and delete them from the on-screen menus in the Messaging application.
• Perform a factory reset of the phone if possible. This will ensure that system and application data and settings, downloaded applications and account data are removed.
• Check the internal storage of the phone (which cannot be removed) to ensure that any personal data that may still be stored on the device is deleted. This can be done by connecting the phone to a computer and viewing the storage through a standard browser. Alternatively it may be possible to reformat the phone by following the instructions in the user manual.
• Finally, take one last look around the phone to make sure that all media, contacts, messages and other files have been removed. It should be straightforward to remove any extraneous data such as call logs, locations and searches from the on-screen menus.
• If you are in any doubt that the data on your phone hasn’t been completely removed, contact a phone recycling centre. Many of these can offer advice on how to ensure that everything is deleted and can even offer tailored guides for specific makes and models of mobile phone.