Never Get Rid of an Old Phone Without Doing These 6 Things First

Take these cell phone precautions before you hand off a trove of personal information to a total stranger.

What’s the deal with cell phone recycling?

When you’re ready to upgrade your cell phone to a shiny new high-tech model, it can be confusing to know what to do with your old phone. Once you’ve disconnected your phone from your contract, it’s just a memory repository full of good times and phone numbers. Of course you’re not going to just throw it away, so what about recycling it? Cell phone recycling can take the form of a gift to your niece, a donation to charity, or even sending it to a professional recycling company. Whatever the tech afterlife looks like for your phone, there are some important steps you need to take first to make sure your privacy and personal data are protected. Learn how to donate or recycle all your old technology, and help save the planet from e-waste.

Start by backing it up

If you’ve owned your cell phone for a while, there’s probably tons of important photos, notes, music, and documents on there that you don’t want to lose. You should be doing this on the regular anyway in case you drop your phone in a puddle, but the first step of cell phone recycling is making time to back up! “If you have not already transferred this information to your new phone, you need to first back it up,” says Wesley Poritz, founder and owner of Big Sky Recycling. “You can either back up your old files to a memory card or store them online using the cloud. Backing up files onto the cloud varies by the phone model. For instance, Android users can back up their files through Google. Likewise, Apple users have iCloud.” Other handsets may have different cloud or storage solutions, so it’s worth doing research, or you could even email your important photos and documents to yourself if there’s not that much you want to keep. While you’re backing up, why not clear your cookies, too—it’s worth it.

Sign out of all accounts

This is a very important step: You’ll want to sign out of and remove each account you’re signed into in your settings. “Signing out of your accounts helps ensure that all identifying information is removed and that your phone is ready to be used by another party or easily recycled,” says Poritz. Tech entrepreneur Oliver Baker agrees. “The most important thing you should do before donating your old phone away is to sign out from everywhere and delete all your saved credentials,” he says. “This way anyone who receives your phone would not be able to gain access to any accounts, cards, online shopping websites, or card details that you might have previously used in your account.” We recommend that you keep a list of your passwords handy so that you can sign back in to your email, online shopping, and bank accounts on another device. Keep in mind that your phone may need to be connected to WiFi or have a cell signal to carry out this cell phone recycling step. You’ll want to make sure that your digital wallet is safe, too.

Change account passwords

You may think signing out is enough, but Derek Meister, a Geek Squad Agent from Best Buy, would like us to go even further. “For extra protection, change important passwords (e.g., your Apple or Google account) that you may have saved to your smartphone. The factory reset of the phone should remove any saved passwords along with your data, but we recommend clients take this extra precaution,” says Meister. “You may also want to ensure that your phone is removed from any services, like Find My iPhone via iCloud.com, or as part of the two-factor authorization in your Google Account if you set it up.” We think it’s best to listen to the experts on this one. When it comes to cell phone recycling, you can’t be too careful! If you’ve recently lost your phone, here’s how to find it—even if it’s turned off.

Unpair from all devices

This one comes from Carl Prouty, tech expert at Abt Electronics. “Unpair any Bluetooth accessories like headphones or speakers you may have had connected wirelessly,” he advises. After all, if you do end up giving it to your niece, the last thing you want is whatever teenagers are listening to nowadays playing automatically through your speakers whenever she comes over. Better unpair from your printers and smart TV, too. Ever wondered if open WiFi networks are safe?

Remove SIM and memory cards

With everything backed up, unpaired, and signed out, you are now safe to remove your SIM card (and memory card, if you have an Android phone). “Not only will those have personal information saved on them [like contacts or photos], but you may be able to reuse them in your new phone,” Prouty explains. If you don’t need your SIM card anymore, you can treat it like a declined credit card in a movie and cut that thing in half. For your next cell phone, do you know how to hide your messages?

Perform a factory reset

All of the experts we spoke to for this story stressed the importance of carrying out a factory reset on your phone. “The reset will wipe the phone, deleting your personal data and any apps you’ve installed. It will also reset the phone back to its default state,” Meister says. For iPhones or Windows phones, this is fairly straightforward—simply find “reset” in your settings. For Android users, gadget enthusiast and CEO of Vegan Liftz Jason Hughes has a tip: “For Android phones, sometimes a full factory reset does not remove your email addresses, texts, and other important chunks of data. So it is important to encrypt your data before wiping it.”

Apple phones are automatically encrypted, but you can encrypt your Android phone in a few easy steps: Go to Settings, then Security, then tap “Encrypt phone.” Once that process is complete, you can select simply reset your Android phone in Settings. Here’s everything you need to know about phone encryption.

Where can I recycle my old cell phone?

It’s a sad fact that e-waste is one of the planet’s biggest trash problems, but there are ways to mitigate the damage with cell phone recycling. “It’s important to know how to recycle your old phone. Several retailers and third-party companies will buy your older model and other electronic devices if they’re in good condition,” explains Jeremy Walters, a Sustainability Ambassador and head of Community Relations for Republic Services, a recycling company that created Recycling Simplified to allow consumers to find recycling solutions more easily. “However, if that’s not an option, knowing how to recycle e-waste properly not only keeps toxic and potentially dangerous materials out of the waste stream, it also allows recyclers to harvest valuable materials like copper, gold, silver, glass, and plastics for another use.”

Walters recommends searching Earth911 or Call2Recycle to find an e-waste drop-off site in your neighborhood. You can also order a prepaid box and mail any tech waste to Republic Services, and they’ll take care of it. Derek Meister also notes that Best Buy has a comprehensive recycling and trade-in program for old tech. “Simply redeem your tech by sending it in or bringing it to a participating store for a Best Buy gift card that you can use to upgrade to the latest tech,” says Meister. You might want to think about changing your phone number, too: Here are four things hackers can do with just your cell number.

Where can I donate my old cell phone?

There’s more than one approach to cell phone recycling, and Walters has more solutions. “Many local charities can make good use of working devices. National programs like Cell Phones for Soldiers and the 1Million Project repurpose your old device to help others. It’s a win/win!” he says. Wesley Poritz’s company Big Sky Recycling will take your tech, broken or working, and recycle it with profits going to charities like One Tree Planted (one cell phone donated = one tree planted) and No Kid Hungry. Now that you know your old cell phone can help a soldier call home, feed a child, or join the fight against deforestation, go forth and donate! Now that you’re in the market for a new phone, learn which cell phone is the most secure.

Sources:

  • Wesley Poritz, founder and owner of Big Sky Recycling
  • Oliver Baker, co-founder of Intelivita, a Web and Mobile App Development company
  • Derek Meister, Geek Squad Agent at Best Buy
  • Carl Prouty, tech expert at Abt Electronics
  • Jason Hughes, gadget enthusiast, nutritionist, co-founder and CEO of Vegan Liftz
  • Jeremy Walters, Sustainability Ambassador and head of Community Relations for Republic Services

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest