What’s the Best Way To Deal With an Old Computer?
Getting a new computer can be exciting — but it’s important to remember that your old one might contain enough personal information to enable scammers to steal your identity, empty your bank account, or scam your friends and family.
When researchers looked through 85 used electronic devices, they found more than 600 email addresses and over 40 Social Security numbers (SSNs) — plus credit card, driver's license, and passport numbers [*].
Unfortunately, the truth is that [*]:
Only 62% of people factory reset their devices before getting rid of them — while 8% do nothing at all to protect their data.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through the steps to safely dispose of your old laptop or PC, including how to properly remove your personal data before selling, donating, or recycling your device.
What Personal Data Is on Your Old Computer?
Your computer can contain everything from your contact list and passwords to tax documents, financial statements, photo and video albums, diary and journal entries, and more.
When it's time to upgrade an old device, you need to carefully remove any sensitive information from your computer before you dispose of it. If not, you could make yourself vulnerable to unwanted consequences ranging from account takeovers to bank account fraud.
Here are just some of the things scammers can do with the data on old computers:
- Steal your identity by using your personal information. Your computer may contain old tax returns, bank information, or even notes that could provide scammers with everything they need to steal your identity.
- Uncover bank and credit card numbers or other financial details. Your computer may also contain your saved bank or credit card numbers, online banking passwords, or other documents with your financial data.
- Sell your information on the Dark Web. Many hackers steal personal information in order to sell it on Dark Web marketplaces to identity thieves, account hijackers, and scammers.
- Take over your online accounts. Modern browsers and computers can remember your login information. Just one saved password anywhere on the device could leave you vulnerable to multiple account takeovers.
- Blackmail you with sensitive photos or videos. If scammers get your personal photos and videos, they can threaten to leak them unless you comply with their demands.
- Run scams on your family and contacts. Old computers may store details about you, your family, and other contacts, which can help fraudsters build very believable scams.
The bottom line: With our lives growing increasingly digital, scammers know that our computers and mobile devices are treasure troves of personal and financial data. Make sure you properly delete your data before recycling, selling, or trashing a device. And for added security, consider signing up for an identity theft and fraud protection provider.
How To Safely Get Rid of an Old Computer
- Make a backup of all of your files
- Encrypt your hard drive
- Deauthorize or disconnect services and apps
- Factory reset your device
- Remove data from a dead computer
- Remove or destroy your hard drive for extra security
- Repurpose the device
- Recycle it the right way
- Donate or gift your computer
- Monitor your personal information for signs of fraud
You may no longer have use for your old computer, but that doesn't mean it's not valuable to people in need. Whether you plan to repurpose it or throw it away, you need to take steps to prepare the device for disposal — and protect yourself from fraudsters.
1. Make a backup of all of your files
Because our computers carry so much information, it's practically impossible to keep track of it all. According to one study, more than 50% of people never delete any files out of fear they may need them at some point [*]. Rather than painstakingly sifting through these files or deleting them all, make a backup and save it to another hard drive or flash drive.
How to back up the data from your computer:
- Windows backup: Depending on your version, Windows computers have different backup options. On Windows 11, use the Control Panel to access File History or Backup and Restore and follow the instructions. On Windows 10, use the Backup option in the Update & Security settings menu.
- Mac backup: Mac users have the Time Machine, which creates backups. Depending on your operating system, the Time Machine can be found in System Settings or System Preferences in the Apple menu. You can then add or select an external drive Backup Disk on which to save your data.
- Cloud storage backup: You can also back up your files to one of the many available cloud storage services, including iCloud Drive, Google Drive, Dropbox, and Microsoft OneDrive. You may also opt for a full cloud backup service, such as iDrive, Carbonite, or Backblaze.
2. Encrypt your hard drive
Erasing the data from your hard drive seems straightforward, but it may not be that simple. In some cases, your data might still be found and recalled even after it's erased [*]. Whether your computer has a hard disk drive (HDD) or a solid-state drive (SSD), you may be better off encrypting the hard drive before wiping it.
How to encrypt the hard drive on your computer:
- Encrypt the hard drive on Windows. You can usually find Device Encryption in the Update & Security or Privacy & Security settings menu, but you may need to search Device Encryption in the taskbar to locate it. Ensure that the device encryption toggle is turned on. You might also find an encryption option by searching for Manage BitLocker.
- Encrypt the hard drive on Mac. On a Mac, navigate to Security & Privacy in the system preferences or settings, and turn FireVault on. You'll be asked to use your iCloud login or a Recovery Key to unlock the disk in the future.
3. Deauthorize or disconnect services and apps
Many online services, software, and apps connect directly to your computer. Before unloading the device, sign out, deauthorize, or disconnect it from these programs. Not doing so could allow a future owner of your computer to access your accounts.
How to disconnect services and apps from your computer:
- Remove device from Microsoft account. Find your device on the Microsoft account page, and then click on Show Details and More Actions to find the Remove or Unlink button.
- Remove from Google trusted devices. Visit your Google account page and click on Security. Find your computer in Your Devices and sign out.
- Remove access from iTunes store purchases. Visit your Apple Music or TV app and click on Authorizations under the Account tab. You can then click on Deauthorize This Computer.
- Deactivate licensed programs. Remove your device from any licensed software or services you have connected. Otherwise, your computer may count against the device limit even after it's gone.
4. Factory reset your device
Now that you've backed up your files, it's time to wipe it clean and restore it back to its original settings. This will remove any personal data, contacts, and apps that could either be used against you or identify you.
How to factory reset your computer:
- Reset your Mac. Navigate to System Settings or System Preferences in the Apple menu. Depending on your MacOS version, you may see Erase All Content and Settings right there; or you may need to click on General and then Transfer or Reset.
- Reset your Windows PC. Depending on your operating system, navigate to the Update & Security or System option in your settings. You can then select Recovery and Reset this PC.
- Reset your Chromebook. Hold down the Ctrl + Alt + Shift + r keys, and press Restart. In the box that pops up, select Powerwash.
5. Remove data from a dead computer
In some cases, your computer dies before you can wipe the hard drive. Thankfully, you can still destroy the data on the hard drive, whether it's the result of a dead keyboard, monitor, or motherboard.
How to destroy data on your dead computer:
- Add a USB keyboard. If your keyboard stopped working on your laptop, plug in a working USB keyboard. Your laptop should detect it immediately.
- Add an external monitor. If a broken monitor holds you back, add an external monitor by using an HDMI cable, an HDMI-to-USB cable, or a display port cable.
- Access the hard drive from another device. If you can't turn the computer on, you need to first remove the hard drive. You can then connect the hard drive to another computer by using a USB to SATA hard drive adapter. Now, you can back up the data and wipe it externally by using data destruction software [*].
6. Remove or destroy your hard drive for extra security
If you don't want to part with your hard drive or don't trust the data deletion process, you can destroy the drive. You need to take care when doing so, however, as hackers can still extract data from broken hard drives.
How to destroy your old hard drive:
- Remove the hard drive. Take out the screws that hold together the computer and hard drive casing. Be sure to expose all of the inner components of the drive to ensure that the vital pieces have no protection.
- Physically destroy the hard drive. While using an industrial shredder would be best, a hammer is the most realistic tool readily available to destroy your hard drive. You want to make sure to use proper protection, and carefully smash every single chip, platter, and circuit board on the hard drive [*].
7. Repurpose the device
Rather than trash, recycle, or sell your device, you can breathe new life into your computer equipment by upgrading it or dedicating it to a specific purpose. Even if your old computer runs slowly, it can still be of use.
How to repurpose your old computer:
- Create an external hard drive. Your old hard drive can make an excellent external storage device. You can buy HDD and SSD enclosures and adapters that allow for easy connection to your other devices.
- Give it a new operating system. Consider installing a lightweight operating system, such as Linux or ChromeOS, to make your old device a makeshift Chromebook.
- Reuse it in a new way. If your computer connects to the internet, you can turn it into a Wi-Fi hotspot router [*]. You might also make it a dedicated gaming console with a emulator program [*].
8. Recycle it the right way
According to the United Nations, each of us generates nearly 8 kg of electronic waste with our old computers and cell phones [*]. Just over 17% of that makes it to a proper recycling program, while the vast majority ends up in landfills. Not only are the metals and toxic materials bad for the environment [*] — improperly disposing of electronics may result in fines [*].
How to recycle your old computer:
- Use a recycling database. There are several search databases available to find electronics recycling depots, including Call2Recycle, Earth911, and GreenerGadgets.
- Find an e-Waste recycling retailer. Many retailers offer electronic device drop-off programs, including Best Buy, Staples, Dell, and Amazon.
- Find a local electronics recycling center. While you can't put your computer in your standard recycling bin, you may find an electronics recycling center or a specialized electronics recycling bin at your local recycling center.
9. Donate or gift your computer
If your old PC still works, you can give it to someone who can use it.
How to donate or gift your computer:
- Find a nonprofit in need. Consider giving your computer to a charity or nonprofit organization that will put it to good use. The World Computer Exchange sends your donations to schools and communities in developing countries. Digitunity puts you in contact with an organization in need near you.
- Gift it to a family member. Old computers make great starter devices for children. You can also ask your friends if they know of anyone who has a use for it.
10. Monitor your personal information for signs of fraud
No matter what you do with your old computer, you should get into the habit of monitoring your personal information and accounts. Hackers get passwords in many ways, including from old electronics [*]. If someone does gain access to your data or accounts, early detection will help you stave off fraud.
How to monitor your personal information:
- Use a Dark Web scanner. You can check the Dark Web for your email address and passwords by using Aura's free Dark Web scanner.
- Consider credit and identity theft monitoring. With a monitoring service like Aura, you benefit from regular Dark Web and credit report scans — plus you receive instant alerts should anything out of the ordinary appear.
Are Old Computers Worth Anything?
Depending on the age and condition of your computer, you might be able to earn some extra cash for it. You can sell the computer as a whole at your local gadget store or on an online marketplace, such as Craigslist, eBay, or Facebook Marketplace. Many stores have trade-in programs for people looking to upgrade or get store credit, such as Apple and Best Buy.
You can also potentially break down your computer into parts and sell the more valuable components, such as the central processing unit (CPU), graphics card, and random access memory (RAM). These pieces have longer lives, which make them more desirable for buyers.
Before you move the computer, weigh the risks to help you determine if pursuing the sale is worthwhile. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what the best — and safest — path is for you.
The Bottom Line: Don’t Let a Device Upgrade Put You at Risk
The information housed in computers makes them extremely valuable for scammers. If you're not careful when disposing of it, your old computer could come back to haunt you.
While you should still follow the proper disposal steps described above, consider signing up for Aura's all-in-one digital security solution to protect your identity, finances, data, and devices.
With Aura, you get:
- Award-winning identity theft protection that safeguards your personal information, money, and online accounts.
- Three-bureau credit monitoring (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) with the industry's fastest fraud alerts.
- AI-powered digital security and spam call protection, including Call Assistant call screening and text filtering, antivirus software, a military-grade virtual private network (VPN), password manager, and more.
- 24/7 White Glove Fraud Resolution support, including a $1 million insurance policy for each adult on your plan that covers eligible losses due to identity theft.
- 14-day free trial, plus a 60-day money-back guarantee on all annual plans.