Hiding on your hard drive: I-Team discovers personal info on used computers

Posted at 10:18 PM, Jun 05, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-05 23:22:40-04

Before you get rid of that used computer are you sure all your personal information has been wiped clean?  

The I-Team went shopping to see if people are selling more than just an old device, and our story took an unexpected twist. We were expecting to only find people who didn't fully erase their information, but one woman sold us computers with other people's sensitive information still stored on them.

We bought five used computers with the help of local IT experts at Sikich, a computer security firm in Brookfield.  We handed everything over to see what they could dig up.

It didn't take them long to find a lot of private information, like Social Security numbers.  Some of those SSN's were linked to other, personal info.  First and last name, date of birth, home address.  

"These are people that did not necessarily consent to have their information tossed out the door," Brenton Roskopf said.  

He and Mark Shelhart are online security experts with Sikich, trained to recover data.  They told us what they found would be easy for anyone to dig up.

"There are actually some tools out on the market that will just scan a drive and pull back word documents, images, etc.. that have been deleted," Roskopf said. 

Two of our five computers were desktop towers we bought from a woman in northern Illinois. In her Facebook Marketplace ad, she claims they were used for her business.  The documentation Sikich found on those towers are for a franchise company called Real Property Management.  

Things like names of property owners, a rent payment agreement, apartment lease, property registration.  Even a driver's license. All easily pulled from these computers.  

The company had no idea this information was out there and called the discovery, "extremely concerning."  COO, John Gohde, told us it can't find any record of the Illinois woman as a franchise owner.  He also said all owners sign a strict agreement when it comes to client information.  

"It's paramount for us to protect the sensitive information of our clients and our tenants," said Gohde, who added owners are responsible for the complete destruction of data.

We also bought a few laptops for this story, one from a Milwaukee woman.  Ashley Eubanks told us she reset her laptop right before she sold it to us.  

It was actually in the process of being rebuilt when we handed it over to Sikich.  A quick search pulled up an email address, which Eubanks verified it was hers.  She said she thought she did enough to wipe her computer.

"Factory reset or erase all data. 'Are you sure you want to erase everything?' So I'm thinking that's just it," she said. 

Eubanks was surprised her efforts didn't erase everything; Sikich said a deep dive of her laptop would have turned up much more.   Eubanks said next time she will "definitely take the right steps to erase everything.  Anything can be compromised."

We reached out to the Illinois seller on Facebook Marketplace.  She acknowledged our questions but never answered them.  She then removed the ad for the other computers she was selling.  Sikich told us on one of the towers we bought there was no attempt to wipe the information.  

On the other one, someone tried but didn't do enough. Real Property Management said it's investigating what happened.

So how do you permanently wipe your information from a computer?  If you need a stress reliever you can take a hammer to the hard drive! Or our experts also suggested some free programs that permanently erase your files.