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How to Safely Get Rid of an Old Computer

by on April 14, 2014
in Computers and Software, Computer Safety & Support, Tips & How-Tos, Tech 101, Green Tech :: 28 comments

Updated on 4/14/2014 to reflect new pricing and software recommendations

Have an old computer lying around the house? Don't just throw it away. Computers house all sorts of toxins that are bad for the environment and all of us who live in it. Not to mention the personal information—passwords, account numbers, license keys or registration numbers for software programs, addresses and phone numbers, medical and prescription information, tax returns and other personal documents—that you would rather not fall into the wrong hands.

So what to do?

How to delete your personal information

However you choose to dispose of your computer, you need to do several things if you don’t want a stranger to access your data.

Save important files

Back up your files or transfer them to a new computer. While you can certainly invest in an external drive, the simplest way to do this is to use a cloud service such as Google Drive or Microsoft’s OneDrive. Google Drive gives you 15GB of storage for free and if you need more you can buy 100GB for $1.99 a month and 1TB for $9.99 a month. OneDrive gives you 7GB of free storage with options to buy 50GB, 100GB and 200GB for annual subscriptions of $25, $50 or $100 respectively. Apple iCloud and Dropbox offer similar packages.

After backing up your files in the cloud, you can easily transfer them to a new machine or access them anywhere you have an Internet connection, even from your smartphone. Cloud storage also comes in handy if your computer dies and you need to restore your files or you’re traveling and need access to data on a different device.

“Wipe” your hard drive clean

Simply deleting files won’t cut it. Even if a file name doesn’t show up on the list of available files the old file data is still there until it is overwritten and a bad guy can use a data recovery program to retrieve it. To remove it from your hard drive permanently, use a dedicated hard-drive wiping program. For Windows PCs try File Shredder (free) and for Macs try Permanent Eraser (free).

Ideally, you'll want to completely reformat your hard drive, as well. But if that sounds a little daunting to you, at least try to follow the additional steps we recommend below.

  1. Uninstall your programs. Some programs, such as Microsoft Office, may contain personal information such as your name and address or other details. While others, such as iTunes, only allow you to install on a limited number of computers. So be sure to deactivate iTunes and uninstall any programs before disposing of your PC.
  2. Delete your browsing history. Most browsers save information about your browsing history and, depending on your settings, can even store your user names and passwords various sites. Obviously, you don’t want a stranger having access to this information. For Internet Explorer, you click on the Safety tab and then Delete Browsing History. Make sure all of the check boxes are selected so everything gets removed. Repeat this for any other browsers on your computer—Firefox, Safari, Chrome.
  3. Consult your employer about data disposal policies. If you use your computer for business purposes, check with your employer about how to manage business-related information on your computer. The law requires businesses to follow data security and disposal requirements for certain information that’s related to customers.

How to dispose of your computer

To avoid all those toxins ending up in a landfill, the better choice is to recycle, donate, trade-in or sell your computer.

Recycling your computer

If you opt to recycle it, keep in mind that some recyclers will simply take your old machine and ship it over to developing nations where children are often used to scavenge piles of e-waste looking for valuable components. To avoid contributing to this irresponsible practice, use a recycler that is part of the “e-Steward” network, meaning they don’t export to places like Pakistan or China, and they follow other high standards. Many of them also will reuse and refurbish electronics. The Electronic TakeBack Coalition offers tips for other ways to responsibly offload your electronics if one isn’t located near you.

Trading-in your computer

As for trading in your PC or laptop, there are scads of companies that offer trade-in programs through which you can sell a wide assortment of used electronics. A few options include BuyMyTronics.com, Gazelle.com and the Amazon Trade-In program. Your local Best Buy or Radio Shack also have trade-in options, but compare what they offer against the online services first.

[computer recycling via Shutterstock]

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Discussion loading

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This was incredible. Telling us

From Mitch on August 23, 2012 :: 10:58 am

This was incredible. Telling us lay peole how to really erase the hard drive makes this one of the best subscritpions to a blog that I have ever signed up for!
thanks,
Mitch

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Donation

From FBClark on August 23, 2012 :: 1:22 pm

Don’t forget local organisations that may be able to put old and still working computers to good use. Lions clubs, blind associations, private physical rehab, Veterans clubs, etc. Vinux which is Linux for the visually impaired can be installed and given to vision impaired people who are shut-ins, or nearly shut-ins and give them an interactive social life. A fresh install of Vinux, or any other user-friendly build of Linux such as Ubuntu, Mint, Zorin or several others can also give other social shut-ins a lease on a social life. Free, I repeat free, fully accessible computers can be given to the deserving. Another great advantage of installing Linux over a Microsoft or a Mac system is that the Linux file system fully overwrites the Windows and Apple file systems obliterating all old personal and program info. Linux is free, no licensing or registration costs, full featured for home and business use and most desktop builds are as user friendly as Windows or Mac. Some are even better! The only cost a shut-in faces is internet access. There may even be local help with this, check around. Research Linux distributions at distrowatch.com

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Donation computers

From Rhonda Foxworth on August 24, 2012 :: 7:32 pm

Or use National Cristina Foundation to locate a nonprofit that could use your old hardware.  Often there is an organization within an easy drive.  http://www.cristina.org/donation.ncf

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Hard Drive

From Hard Drive on September 02, 2012 :: 4:33 pm

I don’t trust any of the hard drive wipe methods.  After doing one of the wipe methods,
I physically remove and destroy the hard drive, and give the rest of the computer to recycle.  You never know who is going to get hold of a donated computer, and how they might access and use residual information.  A removed and physically destroyed hard drive is your best security.

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I agree

From LA Graham on April 14, 2014 :: 12:15 pm

I remove my hard drive and donate the computer to a fellow who works with a school program here, teaching high school and community college students how to repair computers.  He replaces the hard drives and uses the old computers in his classes.  A side benefit is he has offered to handle any problems I may have with any of my current computers.

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Old Computer

From Vivian on September 02, 2012 :: 8:54 pm

I have a Windows XP Professional which has had a virus on it since 2005.How can I safely get rid of it? ASAP.

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Re Vivian's "Old Computer"

From SJS on September 03, 2012 :: 6:24 pm

Vivian -

I’m not a tech-whiz, but I would say: download and install on your XP computer, and then run, any of the good FREE (or fully-functional FREE TRIAL) antivirus (and antispyware) programs that are available on the web, to clear-out any malware on the system. Some good programs that might do the trick are AVAST ANTIVIRUS and SUPERANTISPYWARE.

Then, if you still really want to get rid of the computer—although after that cleaning, maybe you’ll want to keep it—follow any of the suggestions offered elsewhere in this forum, such as, for example, (a) putting it up for sale on eBay or Craigslist, etcetera, (b) donating it to a local charity or to a reputable charitable organization such as The Cristina Foundation.

XP Pro may be a bit old but it’s my understanding that loads of people and businesses, around the world, still use it by choice, because it’s relatively fast & efficient & still effectively meets these users’ needs.

I even use it on one of my older—but still good—computers, and it works fine. Of course I also, for security’s sake, have the system protected by antivirus & antispyware programs, also including a great additional malware detector/blocker program called “THREATFIRE”, which give an extra layer of security to the system.

If you really want to get a new computer, do it. But have you considered that upgrading your XP Pro computer—by adding memory, or a larger-capacity hard drive, or a faster CPU—might be a more economical, and workable, alternative?

As to the rest of the story as to why staying with XP Pro may or may not be to your advantage, maybe other contributors to this forum can offer some additional ideas.

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Hi Vivian,I concur with SJS

From Josh Kirschner on September 04, 2012 :: 3:35 pm

Hi Vivian,

I concur with SJS about downloading a free antimalware solution. My recommendation would by Malwarebytes - it’s the best cleaning tool out there and it’s free. You need to pay if you want ongoing protection with Malwarebytes, but since this is for one-time use, that’s the way I would go.

I would not recommend staying with XP for two reasons:
1) Windows 7 offers much better default protection for preventing rogue applications from installing without your permission (which is perhaps how you got your virus in the first place)
2) Microsoft is no longer supporting XP and is not issuing software patches even if security holes are discovered.

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Wipe the harddrive? What a waste.

From Steen Lauritzen on September 04, 2012 :: 9:57 am

When ever my PC gets obsolete, I always keep the harddisk. Simply unscrew the hard drive from the computer and store it in a safe (place). Then I have a backup for free, I don’t have to worries about some bad guy recovering my data and no need to wait hours after hours uploading my data to the sky.

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Keeping the HD

From Loki on September 14, 2012 :: 1:28 am

Steen, I have to believe you to be a “relatively” new user.  I have also kept drives, but it soon becomes both tiresome and lacking in uses.  I have been using for 30 years, and still have 10Mb drives (yes, that is “EMM-BEE”) that are no longer worth a nickel, even if you could still buy them.  Yeah, they were five or six hundred back then.

All my old drives have been rendered SECURE by both wiping and electro-magnetic interference.  Suffice to say that I have access to large and powerful electro-magnets at work and I use an old machine just for wiping the drives at a 30-pass deletion.

Overkill, perhaps; but I use my home PC’s for some very sensitive and classified information.

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Defunct computers

From Richard on September 04, 2012 :: 12:55 pm

I normally replace the old hard drive and keep the original for data backup. Then I reload the operating system (usually XP Pro) after formatting the replacement drive. This not only stops any residual data being left but also ensures a virus free system. Then I either sell the old computer or offer it to a charity.

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Format? Lol

From Scott on September 04, 2012 :: 3:20 pm

Even contents of a formatted hard drive can be recovered.

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Yes, that's why we recommend

From Josh Kirschner on September 04, 2012 :: 3:40 pm

Yes, that’s why we recommend wiping your files with an eraser tool first, followed by a drive format.

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Recycling Computers

From Susana on September 07, 2012 :: 4:26 pm

I am a long-time member of a computer user group that has operated a computer recycling program from time to time. There are a couple of free programs out there—Belarc Advisor is one of them (used it this morning)—that will build a profile of your PC that includes the license keys for your operating system (OS) and other programs. If you trust disk wipe software, run Belarc (or similar first) and print out the profile so you have a record of the “build” of your OS and its license key.  Then the recycle organization can legally reinstall the OS under that old key. It saves the recipient money for buying a new OS, or at least gives him/her the right to get an upgrade.

Good disk wipe software meets Dept. of Defense conditions for safety. What it does is write the disk with 1’s and 0’s and repeat this numerous times to thoroughly wipe out the previous recording. Acronis makes one such program, and there are others.

Or take out the hard drive as suggested, but record the OS name, build and license key and tape it to the case.

But whatever you choose, DO NOT put it at the curb for pickup!

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Antivirus

From Will J on September 19, 2012 :: 4:26 pm

I don’t know why Vivian used this article to ask a question about an infected computer, but she didn’t specify whether the computer will load Windows. If it doesn’t, and if her computer can boot to a USB device, I would suggest using another computer to download a free USB-based antivirus program and run the antivirus program to clean the hard drive.

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Crashed computer

From Kelly on April 14, 2014 :: 10:38 am

What am I supposed to do to clean/wipe my old computer when it’s crashed?  I purchased a new computer because the old one died and I couldn’t access anything.  The folks I bought the new one from weren’t even able to transfer my files on to the new one. I can’t remember when I’ve purchased a new computer voluntarily.

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Time for "manual" intervention

From Josh Kirschner on April 14, 2014 :: 11:36 am

I’ve had this issue with old PCs,too. The safest thing to do is to remove the hard drive and manually destroy it - power drill, hammer, etc. (wear safety goggles!). Removing a hard drive is easy. If you don’t know where it is, a moderately computer-savvy friend should be able to help.

If you don’t feel comfortable manually destroying it, it is still much more practical to remove the hard drive and keep that in a drawer somewhere than holding on to the entire computer, especially if it’s a big desktop.

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crashed also

From Nancy on April 14, 2014 :: 11:00 am

I have the same problem as Kelly. It’s been sitting in my garage for almost a year because I’m scared to get rid of it.  I know you said to remove the hard drive, but I don’t even know what it looks like LOL.

ps. love your emails

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Can't access old computer

From Blaine on April 14, 2014 :: 1:11 pm

Josh and Nancy,
If there isn’t a hardware problem, your trouble is software. Microsoft will become unstable due to many reasons. If your computer will power up but you only get a black screen or sometimes a blue screen, the trouble is almost definitely software. If you get a message that no operating system is found and you’re asked to insert bootable media, then your hard drive has failed. If the hard drive has physically failed then your files are not accessible. Take it to get a new hard drive installed and the old one can be tossed or you can donate the computer.
You can easily access all your files on a hard drive that hasn’t failed by using any operating system that fully boots from DVD or USB drives. The method doesn’t sound easy, but believe me, it is so easy that anyone can do it. A friend who is blind had just started a Restore procedure on her laptop when the power went off. Her battery failed before the Restore completed. Her system was toast. I took a DVD of a Linux build called Vinux to her, booted the laptop from the DVD, copied all her personal files to her USB pen drive. Vinux had screen readers and Braille display drivers so she had no trouble following along with what I was doing with her personal files. After saving her files and reinstalling her Microsoft, she had me install Vinux alongside her Microsoft. That gave her the option of starting her computer from either Vinux or Microsoft. After going through all of this with her, she discovered that even though she’s blind, she could all of this with Linux by herself, for herself while with Microsoft she couldn’t even begin. Don’t let anyone fool you by saying that Linux is too hard. It’s easier than MS! Sure there are versions of Linux that you need a degree to use, but there are also versions that any computer user who can install any simple program can install and use.
If your old computers still work, install a simple version of Linux and load it with games for the kids. Use it for yourself. Make a media center out of it. Replace and totally erase your old files by overwriting them with an installation of Linux. For beginners I recommend Linux-Mint with the Mate style desktop. Very similar to Win-7. Search for tutorials and study them. It really is very easy to do by yourself. If you do somehow mess up, the computer isn’t any good to you anyway, right? And you can restart the Linux-Mint installation with no trouble and practice installing. Just follow the prompts as you install Linux-Mint and enter a user name and password when needed. It is that simple!

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old computer

From Nancy on April 14, 2014 :: 4:04 pm

Thanks for your reply. 
It kept telling me that my system had changed and to reload Windows, then it wouldn’t accept it.  I was lucky I didn’t lose anything, because I use Carbonite to back up my files.  It was very old anyway. I will have a friend help me remove the hard drive and donate it.

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"Definitely" may be a little strong, but good tips

From Josh Kirschner on April 14, 2014 :: 4:28 pm

I’ve seen black screens and blue screens from motherboard and RAM failures, so not always a failure with the Windows OS. Diagnosing the cause can be tricky.

To be clear, data CAN be read from failed hard drives, assuming the issue isn’t damage to the storage disks, but is a drive head or other physical issue. But most thieves probably wouldn’t bother to go through the onerous data recovery process on a failed hard drive in the hopes of finding something. Nonetheless, I would recommend addt’l physical destruction to make the process more difficult and because determining how badly damaged a hard drive is (if at all) will be tricky for the average consumer.

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Donate it to FreeGeek!

From Dan on April 14, 2014 :: 10:15 pm

You can donate your comptuer to a FreeGeek location, which will wipe the hard drive and reuse components that can be reused & safely recycle components which can’t be reused. There are locations in the US and Canada.

http://Freegeek.org (the original in Portland)

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Disfunctioning iMac

From Passa Caglia on October 20, 2014 :: 12:31 pm

Hard drive disfunctional.  Data still on it.  Had Apple Store transfer data to a LaCie external harddrive because have to wait a few weeks to afford new iMac.  Necessity means using an old PowerBook G4 in meantime, ugh and ouch.  Want to dispose of old iMac but concerned about data on hard drive that actually can be downloaded even if computer does not work.  Can I remove the hard drive from the computer?  What do I do with the unit once get hard drive out?  Would be obliged for any help on this matter.

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Yes, you can remove the hard drive

From Josh Kirschner on October 20, 2014 :: 12:38 pm

You can remove the hard drive from any computer. Doing so usually requires opening the case and unscrewing the drive from its mounting. Not usually hard to do. If you’re not comfortable doing it, your Apple Store would probably do it for you.

Once you have the drive removed, just stick it in a drawer at home or physically disable it (a hammer, wire cutter or drill will do the trick) and throw it away. No one is going to spend the time or money trying to recover data from a physically damaged hard drive.

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Thank you so much for

From Passa Caglia on October 20, 2014 :: 2:13 pm

Thank you so much for your quick reply.  If I may be so bold, if you can answer, can I then take the data that was transferred from my defunct iMac hard drive by the Apple Store, and copy it from the LaCie external hard drive they used to the new iMac I am buying this week?  The Apple Store is very far away and I was planning on doing the transfer myself.  I’m guessing that I just take a USB connecting cable between external LaCie hard drive and the new iMac and it will just transfer but of course I am not a geek or anything near to one (sigh)?  Thank you for any help you might send this way, I’ll be obliged to be sure.

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Yes, the transfer is simple

From Josh Kirschner on October 20, 2014 :: 3:52 pm

Connect the USB cable to your new Mac and you should be able to move the data right over.

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About data retrieval

From Passa Caglia on October 25, 2014 :: 11:20 am

Thank you for your last reply, Josh Kirschner, on using a USB cable to move the data from external HD.  But have another question:  Now I need to actually do the download data from the external HD (LaCie) to the new iMac Intel (Data came from a defunct iMac, saved by an Apple Store Genius to the LaCie).  Crux of the question:  The external HD was used before to save data under similar circumstances.  When accessing data from latest data recovery, since can’t see what is on the LaCie HD unless hooked up to a computer, how to determine only the data specifically wanted be transferred from the external HD to the new computer and not all of the older data?

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Computer donation

From Ariel Smith on December 12, 2014 :: 5:36 pm

Have any Old computers? Need to get rid of them and don’t know how? Here’s an easy way, log on to
http://www.computerswithcauses.org/ and donate now we accept much more than just old computers, we accept, cars, collectibles, boats, real-estate, and even aircraft! Donate to make a difference and save on your taxes.

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