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Tossing your cell phone? Protect your data

Most people wouldn’t give away or sell their wireless phone without first deleting their phone book and other personal information. But you should be just as careful if your phone needs to be repaired. By ConsumerMan Herb Weisbaum.

Most people wouldn’t give away or sell their wireless phone without first deleting their phone book and other personal information. But you should be just as careful if your phone needs to be repaired.

When a cell phone breaks, you either take it back to the store or send it to the insurance company. In either case, you give them your broken phone and usually get a refurbished one in return. That means you get somebody else’s old phone. And eventually, somebody will get yours.

Today’s smart phones can store huge amounts of data — calendars, documents, pictures, audio recordings, and video files — personal and possibly sensitive information you don’t want to share with anyone, especially a stranger.

What you should?
The major phone companies have programs in place to erase all the data from phones they get for repair, trade-in and recycling.

“But that process can fail,” says Erik Larkin, an Associate Editor at PC World magazine. “If you want to make sure the data is gone, you should do it yourself,” Larkin says.

In fact, the wireless companies I contacted agree with that advice. “Clean it out before you return it or put it in the recycle bin,” says Verizon’s Georgia Taylor.

A true horror story
Imagine how you’d feel if that old phone spilled your secrets. It doesn’t happen very often, thank goodness, but it did happen a few years ago to JoAnn Bishop of Los Angeles.

Bishop returned a broken PDA phone and received a refurbished one. After synching the new phone with her computer, she checked the phone book and saw there were more than 300 extra contacts; names she did not recognize. “I thought, wow, this is bizarre,” Bishop told me.

When she checked the calendar she was horrified to find someone else’s appointments there, including a flight to Rome she wasn’t planning to take. That’s when she knew something was really wrong.

The refurbished phone Bishop received had been turned in for repair by Denver businessman David Levi King. Bishop now knew everything about King, including what he would be doing and where he would be going.

“It was freaky,” she says.

In the phone’s notes section she found King’s insurance information, bank and credit card numbers, user names, passwords, and pin codes.

“I felt like I was looking into someone’s private life.”

King told me he was lucky an honest person received his phone. “There are a lot of things a dishonest individual could have done. They could have used my credit cards, or stolen my identity.”

But wait, there’s more
Bishop was assured this was an isolated incident and was sent another refurbished phone. Guess what? This one came loaded with Bassem Megally’s personal information. Megally, who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,had turned it in for repairs. He was shocked when Bishop called to tell him what happened.

“Why would they do such a thing?” Megally asks. “It’s just ridiculous.”

Both Megally and King told me they thought theyhad deleted the information from their phones before turning them in. And indeed, they may have tried. The problem is erasing all the data stored on a cell phone is often a very complicated procedure.

How to do it right
With a computer, when you “delete” files they are still on the hard drive. You just can’t access them easily anymore. The same thing is true with a cell phone.

You need to find out how to wipe the memory clean to permanently delete everything stored on that phone. Removing the SIM Card (Subscriber Identity Module), if your phone has one, is not good enough.

“You can pull the SIM card and still have a whole lot of your personal information stored internally on the phone,” says PC World’s Erik Larkin.

To permanently delete all that information, you need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your specific model. And those instructions are different for every phone. They normally include codes and keys to push. With some Palm products you have to insert a paper clip into the reset hole on the back of the phone.

As an example, here’s what you need to do with the Motorola P8767:

  1. Press FCN, 0, 0, *, *, 8, 3, 7, 8, 6, 6, 3, 3, STO
  2. Press 3, 2, # and wait until display clears
  3. Press 0, 1, #

Do that and you’ve wiped out all the stored data. That’s because this phone has what’s called a “master reset.” Many phones don’t have that feature, so you need to delete the data one step at a time.

With the Kyocera SE44 there are nine separate erase functions: phone book, calls list, call timers, text messages, voicemail, organizer, voice dial, voice memo, and wake-up message.

Where do you get information?
Go to, a site run by ReCellular Inc., the country’s largest recycler and reseller of used wireless phones. Look for the link to “Cell Phone Data Eraser” and you can find step-by-step instructions for phones made by 22 manufacturers. The site also has a database of more than 40,000 recycling centers that you can search by zip code.

Let’s recap
You never want to give away your phone, for any reason, if it contains personal data. You want to pull out the SIM card (if your phone has one) and do a master reset or individual resets to wipe out all the stored data.

Then go through all the menus and make sure everything is gone – the phone book, calendar, notes, and logs of your calls and text messages.

Remember, everything that has been on your phone will stay on your phone, unless you take the time to get remove it.