How To Dispose of Old Cell Phones Safely and Securely

Stephanie Faris
Writer
Dolores Bernal
Editor
January 23, 2024

My last office job was managing a help desk for the state government.

I helped with the transition from Blackberry phones to iPhones, but long before that, we were dealing with desktops, laptops, and tablets.

Every year, we’d have a crop of new devices arrive at our door. We’d unbox them and move them into the storage room, where they’d remain as we gradually set up each one and move it to the assigned employee.

As you can probably guess, we also had a lot of old computers ready to be sent off to the computer graveyard.

At first, we just wiped the computer and took it to Surplus Property, the division that handled selling it secondhand to the public.

Over time, though, it became clear that wasn’t enough. Resetting a smartphone or formatting a hard drive doesn’t remove every trace of data. A crafty criminal might be able to grab information from it.

Guess where crafty criminals could go to get a secondhand computer at a discount? Government surplus property sales.

Luckily, you only have one or two devices to dispose of every few years. When it’s time to replace that sluggish laptop or that malfunctioning five-year-old iPhone, it’s important to ensure every trace of data is gone.

Act Now: Even if you perfectly dispose of your phone, identity theft is always a risk if you’re online. Protect yourself with Aura and give yourself peace of mind.

What Are the Electronics Disposal Options?

A man is breaking a smartphone lying on wooden table with a big hammer

Image by bublikhaus

We have a stack of iPhones in a drawer.

We have a stack of laptops in a closet.

I know we need to dispose of them, but I’m a bit of a procrastinator! 

I’m betting you have at least one smartphone tucked away somewhere. You’ll get around to disposing of it someday. Someday you’ll have more time.

Once you’re ready, here’s a list of where to send those old devices. (The list goes for laptops, desktops, printers, tablets, and TVs.)

1. Store It

My stack of laptops has a purpose. Since I rely on my laptop for work, I can’t afford to be without one for even a day or two.

Although Macs are reliable, I did have the key repeating issue with my older one. The keyboard had to be replaced three times over the four years I owned it. And each time, it was in the shop for at least two days.

I’d go to the closet each time, grab my 2014 Macbook from the shelf, fire it up, and keep working.

The same could go for your smartphone. What happens if you drop your phone and it suddenly dies? What if you lose it?

Having a backup phone will be a big help. You can just switch the number to the old phone and pick up where you left off.

2. Pass It On

Last year, someone in the family had a broken smartphone. We have some old smartphones, I said. I pulled out my stack, and we went through them. We handed the newest one over.

Yes, we thoroughly cleaned it first. Here’s an important note:

No matter what you’re doing with your phone, make sure you’ve erased everything on it.

Maybe you gave it to a sibling or your own child. You trust those people, of course, but you can’t guarantee that person won’t lose the phone. If it ends up in the wrong hands, your remaining data could still fall into the wrong hands.

When you’re ready to get rid of an old smartphone, check around. Someone in your close circle likely could use it. It might even be useful as a Wi-Fi-only device for a friend or relative’s child.

3. Sell It

Who couldn’t use a little extra cash?

Whether you put it towards your new phone or use it for a bougie night out, selling your old smartphone can be a great way to make a little cash.

You’ll probably get more if you sell your phone on Facebook Marketplace or eBay, but those platforms are full of scammers. Be careful if you go that route.

A better method might be to sell it to one of the many sites that act as a go-between. They pay cash for your used devices, turn around, and sell them at a markup.

It’s similar to trading your car in versus selling it yourself. You get less money but also deal with less risk and hassle.

Here are some sites or places ready to purchase your smartphone:

Most of the above sites will give you a quote before you sell. Input your phone’s specs into those forms and get an offer to determine where you’ll get the best deal.

4. Donate It

If you can’t pass your phone to someone you know or monetize it, the next best thing is to donate it.

There are a variety of charitable organizations that accept smartphones.

The list below includes some general ideas, as well as some charities that are found in almost every community. These don’t include the many local charities that serve only your area.

  • 911 Cell Phone Bank: This organization says it’s helped more than 150,000 victims of human trafficking and domestic violence with donated cell phones.
  • National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: Donate your phone to NCADS, and a portion of the proceeds from its resale will go toward programming that helps domestic violence victims.
  • Cell Phones for Soldiers: Donated cell phones are sold, and the proceeds are used to ship prepaid international calling cards to deployed troops. 

5. Recycle It

Cell phones are classified in a category of waste considered hazardous due to the dangerous materials in them. Your phone may contain lead and mercury, which have been found to contribute to environmental pollution.

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to recycle your old cell phones safely. Here are a few:

  • EcoATM: These devices give you cash in exchange for dropping your cell phone into a slot.
  • Best Buy: If you have a Best Buy near you, you’ll find an in-store kiosk where you can deposit your phone.
  • Goodwill: Yes, where you drop off old clothing will also take your cell phones. Goodwill works with recycling partners to make sure electronics stay out of landfills.

Many local governments have electronic waste recycling options. It may be a fixed day each month, or you may be routed to a specific location. It’s worth checking into if you want to go the recycling route.

Smartphone Disposal Risks

Whether you donate, sell, or recycle your cell phone, there are some risks.

Think about your phone. What information is on it? Sure, it’s password-protected, but the right hackers can find a way past even the best security.

If you recycle your phone without resetting it, your friends and family could be accessible to a scammer.

That’s just the beginning. Hackers could see where you bank, where you shop and dine, and where you get medical care. Your usernames for various apps will likely be visible, even if your passwords aren’t.

This starts with simply erasing your data before you donate.

Yes, people hand their old cell phones off without even trying to erase their data.

Don’t do that.

How do you know that erasing it is sufficient? Spoiler alert: it isn’t!

The biggest risk is that someone will grab your phone and find its data.

Therefore, removing as much data as possible before passing your phone onto its next home is important, even if that next home is an electronics graveyard.

How to Prepare Your Smartphone for Recycling?

Cloud storage upload

Image by rawpixel.com

Once you’re ready to offload your smartphone for good, it’s time to take some steps to clean it. You can start by physically cleaning it to be in good shape. Yet even more important than that is erasing the data on it.

Here are some steps to ensure your phone is safe from scammers.

1. Back Up Your Data

I would never get rid of an old phone until I was 100 percent sure everything had been moved over. That includes contacts, apps, and any needed photos or videos.

Moving apps and contacts from one phone to the next is easier than ever. Mine automatically move over with a simple instruction.

Photos and videos, though, don’t typically transfer so easily. It’s important to ensure those are backed up before you get rid of your phone.

Even if your phone automatically backs up as you go, do one last push. Follow the instructions to back up your iPhone or Android to the cloud.

2. Sign Out of All Your Accounts

Yes, we’re going to walk through the steps of erasing your phone’s data, but it can’t hurt to also make sure you’re signed out of everything. Go to each individual app and sign out. 

This includes your banking apps, email, and social media accounts.

If you think you’ll have difficulty remembering your passwords, note those, too.

While you’re at it, unpair your phone from all devices. This is particularly important if you plan to keep your device in the family. Otherwise, you’ll find your old phone is constantly pairing with your car, earbuds, speakers, microphones, and more.

3. Move Your SIM Card

If you take your new and old phone to your local cell phone provider, an employee will pop out the SIM card in your old phone and slide it into the new one. You can also probably do this yourself with some basic instructions, depending on the phone.

This transfers your phone number from the old phone to the new one. It also helps keep your information safe.

✎ Related: How to Protect Yourself From A Phone Porting Fraud? ⟶

4. Perform a Factory Reset

Resetting your phone takes it back to its original factory settings. That means if someone ends up with your phone, powering it on will bring up the setup screen.

If you have an iPhone, follow the linked instructions.

Android phones are more complicated since there are so many different manufacturers. Typically it’s found under settings.

While this will often protect you, traces of data can remain. That’s where encrypting and overwriting can help.

5. Encrypt Your Data

If you own an iPhone, congratulations! Your data is already encrypted.

When you reset your phone to factory defaults, your encryption key is discarded. A new key is issued for anyone who sets up a new account on it.

If you own an Android device, though, encryption requires a little extra work.

If you have Android 5.0 or later:

Go to Settings – Security – Encryption – Encrypt phone.

If you have Android 4.4 KitKat or lower:

Go to Settings – Security – Screen Lock – Encrypt phone.

6. Overwrite Your Data

When I worked in IT, we used military-grade encryption to ensure nothing remained.

If you feel you need extra protection after encryption, overwriting your phone with junk can help.

Apps like iShredder and ShredIt can give you the peace of mind you need. 

After all that, you should be good to go. But you can do a couple of additional things before, during, or after disposing of your old phone to protect yourself further.

Additional Steps to Take (Just in Case)

Still worried about your phone’s security? 

Here are some things you can do to get the peace of mind you need.

1. Reconsider Storage

I recently watched a true crime show where three cell phones were stolen from a house (a baby was missing, too, so the missing cell phones were so not the point).

I can’t help but think of that episode now, though. Hopefully, your home will never be burglarized, but if it ever is, that old equipment could end up in the wrong hands.

Chances are, you haven’t reset or cleaned those old devices. That means whoever grabs your equipment could have access to everything on it.

A more likely scenario is the burglar will take those items and resell them. The person who buys them will access your data.

Either way, your identity and/or financial information could be compromised.

2. Change Account Passwords

Even if you’ve thoroughly erased your device, it can’t hurt to change your passwords.

Periodically changing passwords for our most sensitive apps is always a good idea.

Make a list of all the apps that might contain compromising information. Also include apps that scammers might use to impersonate you and defraud others, including all your social media accounts.

Don’t forget the apps you use infrequently. Those can be especially vulnerable to account takeover.

Use complex passwords that are tough to guess (even using password-cracking technology). When multi-factor authentication (MFA) is available, take advantage of it. Ensure only someone with a second device can access your account in each MFA instance.

3. Consider Identity Theft Protection

Someone doesn’t even need your physical device to access your data. If the person who takes it over from you uses it on public Wi-Fi or downloads a keylogger virus, any information remaining on it could be compromised.

That’s where identity theft protection can help.

An identity thief can use information like your Social Security number, name, address, phone number, and date of birth to commit fraud. This includes:

  • Applying for credit
  • Taking over existing accounts
  • Renting a home or apartment
  • Securing a bank account
  • Opening utility accounts (gas, water, electricity)
  • Landing employment
  • Filing a tax return
  • Applying for government benefits
  • Getting medical procedures

For you, the victim, cleanup is the toughest part. It will be on you to convince creditors and credit bureaus that your identity has been stolen.

Identity theft protection services like Aura, LifeLock, and IdentityForce specialize in helping identity theft victims recover. Not only will their experts work with you to reclaim your good name, but the protection will act as insurance, covering some of the cost.

The real value comes in how they help you on the front end. Long before an incident has occurred, these services monitor your credit and look for signs that your identity might have been compromised.

Early detection can help you reduce the impact of an identity theft incident, which also cuts down on the work you must do on damage repair.

✔ Act Now: Aura will protect you from identity theft, watch your accounts, and provide identity theft insurance. Sign up today for off off and a 14-day free trial.

4. Monitor Your Accounts

We recommend you keep an eye on your bank accounts. By monitoring your activities every day, you’ll be able to catch any unusual transactions quickly. If you can shut things down, you’ll reduce damages.

We still recommend that (or having a service such as Aura do it partially for you), but with your smartphone, there’s another thing to watch. If a scammer can get your smartphone account ID, that person could make purchases in your name.

This can include buying apps, subscriptions, and movies from the associated store.

We have several transactions on our smartphone account. They come to my junk email address, though. That’s the address associated with my ID. Luckily, I check that one multiple times a day, but if I didn’t, my ID could be compromised for a while without me knowing about it.

Conclusion

Smartphones power so many aspects of our lives. Occasionally, we have to replace them.

Holding onto our old electronics can be a liability, especially if we haven’t erased their data. Yet before we send them on to their next home, it’s important to take a few extra minutes (or hours) to wipe all the data on them.

Act Now: Get Aura today to protect yourself against the risk of identity theft from stolen information. Aura will watch your accounts, provide identity theft insurance, and more.

After all, knowing the risks is key to protecting ourselves against them.

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