Old Computer Advice From NASA

By Lawrence Anderson
NASA Office of Inspector General

Thinking about upgrading or replacing your old home computer? While this purchase will invoke considerable choices, let's not forget about that old PC you may be looking to replace. Many of these systems are candidates for resale, charitable donation to schools or churches, or perhaps setting out for trash collection. Unfortunately, your good intentions can be where your nightmare begins.

Getting Rid Of That Old Computer

Unless you take the proper precautions, getting rid of your home computer might be your personal introduction to one of the fastest growing crimes in America--Identity-theft. This theft, or fraud, is the taking of the victim's identity to open credit card accounts, make purchases, take out loans, or order false checks and ATM cards in your name. Basically, all that an identity "thief" needs is your birth date, social security number and any other identifying information, such as your address and phone number. Consider these important facts:

  • Federal officials and consumer groups estimate there are between 500,000 and 700,000 cases of identity thefts each year costing victims over $7620 million annually. Last year, identity theft was the number one consumer complaint to the Federal Trade Commission.
  • Among major U.S cities, the nation's capital ranks number one for identity thefts, with a per capita average of 20 fraud incidents for every 100,000 residents. The average age of the victims is 41 years old.
  • In identity-theft cases, the victim often has to prove his or her innocence. This fact shocks most new identity-theft victims.

Old Computers And Identity Theft

Historically, thieves collected information about an individual by stealing their wallet or purse, removing mail from mailboxes to obtain bank statements, credit card statements, etc., or taking trash from residential neighborhoods. More recently, advances in office automation and personal electronic devices have provided additional avenues to obtain one's personal information.

One readily available source is from data left on personal computer hard drives when a business or private citizen decides to sell, donate, recycle or throw away their previous computer. Many of us maintain our tax returns, financial records, medical history and personal, private files on our home computer. Be aware that use of your keyboard or mouse to delete files does not remove these files completely. These commands merely signal the drive to make that storage location available for subsequently saved files. Until overwritten with new data, the deleted information remains retrievable.

Identity Theft On The Rise

It gets worse. Recently, Federal Trade Commission officials told Congress that the Internet has made it much easier for a person to anonymously steal another's identity. Furthermore, a major dot.com company announced new policies on selling consumer shopper information, telling customers it now considers information it has about them a company asset, available to be sold.

This includes your buying habits, credit card numbers and social security information. And just how scary is it that the FTC recently closed down, temporarily, a Web site selling false identity documents, including state ID cards, drivers licenses, birth certificates and social security card numbers? With these tools, stealing your identity has become much more transparent--for the thief, and to you.

Protect Yourself - Completely Wipe Your Old Computer

Don't despair! There are several things you can do. First and foremost, keep your personal information guarded to the maximum extent possible. This includes mail you throw away in your trash at home. Another overlooked medium includes your home personal computer.

Be sure to clear all data from your computer's hard drive before you sell or donate it. And lets not forget, many of us use home computers to do NASA work as well. In so doing, NASA-sensitive or Privacy Act protected information may also reside on your home computer's hard drive. Effective cleansing of the drive will not only protect you, but also extend a security safeguard to NASA. Your local computer software store can provide you with the necessary drive clearing software appropriate for your system.

Getting Rid Of Your Old Computer - Additional Information

As the new millennium emerges, more and more people throughout the world will become computer users as the information age accelerates and the digital divide is reduced. There is enough to worry about with others stealing and selling private information about you; don't give away your privacy and NASA's security.

If you have been a victim of identity theft, you can call the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline toll-free at 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338). Web: www.consumer.gov/idtheft and www.ftc.gov.


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