Cellphone warning: Is deleted information really deleted?

Forensic expert weighs in with the alarming truth

Chances are you own a cell phone. Chances are you may be leaving behind a virtual map of your life.

Cell phones are so common now there are almost as many cell phone subscriptions as there are people on earth, 6 billion according to the International Communication Union. Industry statistics suggest Americans like upgrading their cell phones, on average, every 22 months.

But before you donate, sell or trade in your old cell phone you might be surprised to learn what you could be leaving behind.

"You can get something off just about every phone," said Patrick Paige, co-founder of Computer Forensics, LLC.  Paige, a former forensics detective breaks apart everyday technology to find hidden pasts. These pasts, he explains, can often be retrieved even with the best intentions of wiping them away.

Basic extraction devices can be purchased on the internet and are used to recover old data.  A quick search online showed some extraction devices selling for less than $800.

"If you were to look at some phones, deleted information wouldn't show up, but the software is able to go in here and recover them," explains Paige.

The Contact 5 Investigators wanted to see just how vulnerable cell phone owners can be. Contact 5 Investigators hit local thrift shops, purchased a handful of old cellular phones and brought the goods back to Patrick. In a matter of minutes, he was able to recover a flood of information.

"You have a lot of pictures on here. There are some files that on here that are deleted," he said.

We found names, phone numbers, texts, images, all deleted and in plain sight using extraction devices.

"This person's identity I can probably steal it pretty easily," said Paige when asked how the information could be used to harm consumers.

Industry experts suggest performing a factory reset as one of the best ways to wipe your cell phone clean.

According to major cell phone carriers, a reset results in the loss of all stored data, but Paige warns older phones might be more risky.

"Every phone is different. Some phones, yes. Some phones, no," he explains.

Paige suggest bringing your old phones into your carrier and let them do the cleaning, specialized software can also wipe data away.  But just in case you were wondering, how does this forensic expert guarantee his old phones are secure?

"I'd break it in half.  Yea, that's what i would do, just snap it in half, it's too risky.

The 4-1-1 on how to protect your private information

There are less extreme ways to wipe your phone clean so you can still donate it or sell it. The Contact 5 Investigators consulted with CTIA-The Wireless Association. CTIA is the international non-profit association representing the wireless communications industry.

According to John Marinho, Vice President, Cybersecurity and Technology, the most effective steps you can take to really delete deleted information off your cell phone are:

1.  Backup the information on the smartphone to a PC or back-up service provider

2.  Notify the wireless service provider and enterprise IT providers (as appropriate) that the device is no longer in use

3.   Overwrite and delete all passwords, PINs and OTPs (One Time Passwords) on the smartphone, in particular secure Wi-Fi passwords and other sensitive personal account information (e.g. banking/financial institutions)

4.   Overwrite and delete security settings parameters, i.e. security certificates, VPN parameters, encryption settings – if applicable

5.   Delete all personal information and applications (e.g. pictures, account information, files, Facebook, Gmail, email, etc.)

6.   Delete peripheral devices settings, i.e. Bluetooth devices and corresponding pairings

7.   Delete or erase all files that may be stored on the SD memory card (if installed)

8.   Reset the smartphone to default factory settings

9.   Remove any installed SIM (Subscriber Identity Module)

"These are the steps to effectively erase the data on one's phone. There are also a number of "eraser" apps too. If one wants, you can go the extra length that involves overwriting every portion of memory to capacity on the device by downloading "Dummy" files on to the device," said a media relations specialist with from the association.

Cell phone carriers weigh in

The Contact 5 Investigators contacted major cell phone carriers and asked them for a response on the fact that deleted information can still be retrieved on some phones and models.  Contact 5 Investigators also asked each carrier for a list of steps consumers can take to properly and most effectively wipe old cell phones clean.

T-Mobile referred us to CTIA

AT&T referred us to CTIA

Sprint Nextel:

Customers can utilize the factory reset feature that comes standard with their mobile device and erases all contact, search, photo, SD card and other data respective to their use and ownership of the device.

Sprint's Total Equipment Protection (TEP) program – https://protection.sprint.com – and Lookout Mobile Security – https://www.lookout.com

– are also additional options available to customers. There are also mobile security apps available via the Google Play store and iStore.  


"MetroPCS does not store personal data, which means that if you have your phone erased or reset and sell it or give it to someone else, they will not be able to access information such as passwords or photos. Many third party apps, such as those found on Google Play, store personal data in the cloud, but if your phone has been reset, another person will not be able to access your information from the device  itself. The bottom line is that once you've had your device erased or reset, no one will be able to retrieve your information. "




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