Used iPad, laptops, may contain personal data

January and February are big months for gadget returns, as we send back electronics that don't seem to be working properly or we no longer want.

But before you return a gadget, we have a caution: Did you remove all your personal information?

Dr. Matt Wahlert recently emailed me to say he returned a laptop with a bad hard drive, only to get an email from someone who said he bought a used laptop, with all Wahlert's information on it, including credit card numbers.

The same thing happened last year, in January 2012, to a man who returned an iPad.

Brought iPad Back and Problems Began

Sean Morath decided he couldn't afford to keep both his phone and the iPad he got over the holidays. So he decided the iPad had to go back.

"I played with it for a few days, decided I miss my smartphone, it's just too convenient, so I brought the iPad back," he said.

Morath says Best Buy gave him a full refund with no problems. But a few weeks later, he received a strange email regarding his used iPad.

He said the email stated that "a friend of his just bought a new iPad and when he opened it up, it said 'Hello Sean Morath.' And I said huh?"

Sean says it turns out his used iPad was resold without his name and credit card info removed.

"The new buyer could have been able to purchase apps and movies because to register your iPad you have to put in a bank account or credit card number," Morath said. "So he could have bought apps or anything and it would have gone straight to my bank account."

Best Buy says stores are supposed to erase and reset all returned electronics. The company says "we are sorry to hear about this incident, and we will take the appropriate action to rectify this situation."

What you Need to Do

However, to avoid this risk, if you are returning something, you should take pro-active steps to wipe it clean before you rebox it. 

Web forums are filled with chatter about used laptops and tablets containing credit card numbers and other private info. While someone should not be able to make an iTunes purchase without your password, it's still disconcerting to know any of your info is on there.

Some options:

  • Go to your gadget's settings and look for an erase, reset, or restore icon. On the iPhone and iPad, there is a clear "erase" button, which will delete your personal data.
  • Or do a Google search for wiping personal info on whatever gadget you have. You should find a number of postings about how to do it.
  • A third option: Have a store employee do it as you watch.

"I would either find someone you know who knows how to clear them out, or demand it gets erased in front of you before you leave the store," Morath said.

Morath says next time he is going to make sure all his data is erased before he turns in any other gadget.

This is especially important to remember if you will be trading in an old cell phone in the near future so you don't lose your personal info and don't waste your money.

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