FYI: How to Dispose of your Mobile Phone

According to James Mosieur, CEO of CellForCash.com, "The average user gets a new phone about every 18 months and they end up retiring the old one." So what do we do with all of our leftover phones? Many people pass their old cell phones or Smartphones (Treo and Blackberry are two popular models) on to family members, sell them on eBay or donate them to charity. However, the January 01, 2007 edition of the Federal Trade Commission's Disposal Rule (16 CFR Part 682) says that the responsibility to properly dispose of consumer information includes the sale, donation or transfer of any medium, including computer equipment, upon which consumer information is stored.
You may recall that the passage of the Federal Trade Commission's Disposal Rule ( 16 CFR Part 682) on June 1, 2005, says that companies disposing of computer equipment need to take steps necessary to remove personal or financial information from the machines (See FYI: How to Dispose of Computer Equipment). Today's cell phones and Smartphones, defined by Webopedia as being handheld devices that integrate mobile phone capabilities with the more common features of a handheld computer, must be considered when developing compliance policies. Smartphones allow users to store information, e-mail, install programs, and make phone calls from a single device. A Smartphone could be a mobile phone with computer capabilities or vice versa. Consequently, these devices would qualify as a medium upon which consumer information could be stored and be subject to the Federal Trade Commission's disposal rule. For the purposes of this article I will use the term mobile device to refer to either a cell phone or Smartphone.
Flash Memory
Many mobile devices use a SIM to store contact data. According to Wikipedia, The Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) is part of a removable smart card ICC (Integrated Circuit Card for mobile devices. If you have setup your contact info to automatically save to your SIM, when you remove the SIM from your old device and install it in a new one you'll have immediate access to much of your data. This is something that you have to confirm because many mobile devices automatically save everything to flash memory which stays with the phone. The call logs, photos, memos, e-mails, text messages and other information often reside in the device's internal or flash memory. The following articles discuss instances of individuals receiving refurbished mobile devices or purchasing them on eBay and finding the previous owners' personal information and contacts still on the device. Removing the SIM card will not remove this information; a hard reset is needed to purge the device of this sensitive data. I'll discuss my own experience with the location of my personal information later on.
  • FYI: Security on the Go
  • Tossing your cell phone? Protect your data
  • AP: Don't Keep Secrets on Your Cell Phone
  • Purging Your Mobile Device

    Before surrendering your devices for repairs or donation, you want to pull out the SIM card (if applicable) and do a master reset to wipe out all the stored data. This varies from model to model. Some carriers provide software that will reset your device; others will instruct you to use various key combinations. When I had to unexpectedly replace my own mobile device, I went through a series of menu commands. You'll need to call customer service for your carrier to get instructions to reset your device and then verify that all the information is gone by checking your phone settings before handing it over. Wireless Recycling's Cell Phone Data Eraser provides hard reset instructions for many popular devices.

    Recycling Your Mobile Device

    Once you’ve removed the SIM card (if applicable), performed a hard reset and discontinued service with your carrier, your device is ready to be disposed of. Mobile Devices and chargers like computers, contain a variety of toxic materials that can poison the soil, water and air including lead and cadmium so it is important to dispose of your mobile device responsibly.

    Most major mobile device carriers will allow you to drop off your older devices. While working on this article my own trusty mobile device bit the dust, forcing me to upgrade. The carrier offered to dispose of my old device as he rang up my order. Though tempted, I held onto it until I could backup and purge the old data. During the process I discovered that most of my 297 contacts were saved to the flash memory of the device and not my SIM as I believed. Had I handed over my device for convenience sake, my call history, text messages, pictures and all those contacts would have been available to strangers. After restoring my all of my contacts to the new device, I safely purged my old device. Now I can consider one of the many options to dispose of my newly cleansed device.

  • A non-profit public service organization dedicated to recycling used rechargeable batteries and old cell phones - The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation ( RBRC). Type in your zip code to find a collection center near you. The Big Green Box is a program for recycling both non-rechrageable (including alkaline) and rechargeable batteries. For more information see our FYI: Battery Disposal and Recycling.
  • CharityGuide - published resources for donating your old mobile phone.
  • Unlike a purged computer, a purged cell phone or Smartphone is still capable of making calls. The Call To Protect campaign collects wireless phones to benefit survivors of domestic violence.
  • CollectiveGood, is a charitable resource for recycling spare cell phones in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. They also offer tax documentation.
  • For information on disposing of computers, see our FYI: Computer Disposal.
  • For more information on disposing of batteries see our FYI: Battery Disposal and Recycling
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