Q: I have several old computers that I need to dispose of. Where do I do this and feel confident the info therein will be destroyed? — Toni

A: The reality of what makes a computer valuable (the data that’s stored on it) becomes clearly obvious when you go to sell, donate or recycle it.

The 0s and 1s that make up your digitally stored information has an exponentially higher value, especially to identity thieves, than the old electronic components that make up the computer.

Once a computer that contains your personal information leaves your control, you have no idea what will happen to that information, so you should never take this task lightly.

The plethora of data that has been found on used equipment over the years has been chronicled time and again, but connecting the dots for non-technical users is often still a big mystery.

At the end of the day, you should take responsibility for protecting yourself or find a trusted resource that can properly remove your data for you.

As most folks now know, simply deleting a file does not remove it from the computer’s hard drive; it simply hides it from the operating system (Windows or MacOS) and the user.

Any slightly motivated hacker ‘wannabe’ that has done 10 minutes of research on the Internet has the ability to get your deleted files back, so that will never do.

Here are your options when donating, selling or giving away an old computer:

Install a secure deletion program such as Eraser that will scrub your personal data files from the hard drive but leave the operating system and programs in tact.

This option is preferred for those that want to ensure that the computer is fully functional when they donate, sell or give the computer to the next party.

Run a secure wipe of the entire hard drive with a program such as Darik’s Boot and Nuke.

This option will clean all programs and files from the hard drive, which will require the recipient to reinstall everything from scratch.

Remove the hard drive and donate, sell or give away the rest of the computer. Hang onto the hard drive until you have an alternative method of securely wiping the information.

This option is the easiest for the non-technical user, because it only requires a screwdriver and a little time and allows those that don’t have a trusted resource at hand to deal with the issue at a later date.

Hire a professional organization to perform the task for you. Many computer service companies offer a secure deletion service for those that are not comfortable doing it themselves (our stores charge $59 for the service, for example – www.datadoctors.com/recycle).

A couple other often overlooked issues before donating your old computer; saved passwords and web surfing history.

If your e-mail program has a saved password on it and you donate or sell your computer, you just made it very easy for the recipient to assume your identity online.

Think about what happens when you forget a password for an online account: the site will send a reset message to your registered e-mail address.

An ID thief will immediately change your account password to lock you out, then start finding all of your online accounts so they can click on the “I forgot my password” link for each of them. How do they find out where you bank? Simple: by looking at your Internet history or old e-mail messages.

Remove program passwords, clear Internet histories, browser passwords, cookies and AutoComplete histories if you plan on donating or selling a fully functional computer!

Ken Colburn
Data Doctors Computer Services
Data Doctors Data Recovery Labs
Data Doctors Franchise Systems, Inc.
Weekly video tech contributor to CNN.com
Host of the award-winning “Computer Corner” radio show