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New Asus Transformer Prime comes complete with previous owner's personal info

Always wipe gadgets before returning them. Bill Detwiler shares a cautionary tale and steps for wiping iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 7 devices.

Photo by: Josh Miller/CNET

I put my hands on a lot of hardware--tablets, smartphones, laptops, desktops, servers, ebook readers, cameras, game consoles, set top boxes, and TVs to name just a few. I've cracked open just about every type of gadget for TechRepublic.

Sometimes manufactures or PR agencies send us loaner units, but often we purchase the devices from either a local or online retailer. It's not uncommon for loaner devices, which are often shared between media outlets, to arrive with a previous user's information still on the device. These are usually test accounts and not tied to any individual. I was a little surprised however, when I opened a "new" Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime this week and found it still synced to the previous owner's Google account.

"New" tablet filled with previous owner's data

I purchased the tablet in question from Office Depot's online store. When I removed the device's box from the shipping container, I thought it odd that the box wasn't wrapped in plastic. It was also strange that the tablet itself was not covered in any type of wrapping. But, I knew the device wasn't new, when I powered it on and the standard Android setup screen didn't appear. Instead, I was presented with the normal device lock screen. In fact, the device wasn't even powered off. It was just asleep.

A quick look at the device's settings confirmed my suspicions. The previous owner's Gmail account was still tied to the tablet and was set to automatically sync with Google.

I immediately called Office Depot and explained that they had shipped me a used tablet. To the company's credit, the customer service agent apologized, schedule a return pick up for the following day, and shipped me a brand new unit a day later. Kudos to Office Depot.

After speaking with the agent, my only decision was what to do with the used tablet until the deliver driver picked it up. Should I just return it as is? Should I contact the previous owner? Thinking about how I would want someone to treat me, I decided to wipe the device and email the owner.

I told the owner what happened and that I wiped the device. I also wrote that I did not access his online accounts or look at any personal data on the device--other than the email address. As of this writing, I haven't heard back.

Wipe those devices

What's the moral of this story? Always perform a factory reset or wipe your devices BEFORE returning, selling, or giving them away. To help you protect your personal data, here are instructions for performing a factory reset on popular tablet/smartphone operating systems:

  • iOS: From one of the Home Screen, press Settings, scroll down to and tap General, and then select Reset. From the Rest screen, choose the option Erase All Content and Settings. Read the warning and tap Erase iPhone.
  • Android: From the Home screen, press the Menu button and then Settings. Select Privacy and press Factory data reset. Read the warning message, select the Erase SD card box if you want, and press the Reset phone button.
  • Windows Phone 7: Swipe or tap the arrow on the Start screen and then scroll down to and tap Settings. Scroll down to and tap About and select "reset your phone". Read the warning message and click "yes".

About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

22 comments
n4aof
n4aof

"Kudos to Office Depot." ARE YOU CRAZY?? Kudos for selling a used item as new? Kudos for putting a returned item back on the shelf to be sold again without even turning it on to see if it worked?

Paul R.A.
Paul R.A.

have had three friends get "new" phones. apparently the big thing is for the phone stores is to try out those new phones and then put them back in the box. a trip through the shrink wrap machine can help too. happend at t-mobil and verizon one had photos of the guy's girlfriend in various poses with him. the others had other personal information- including phone numbers etc. worst thing were the stores not wanting to admit their employees were playing around- in all instances the manager kept trying to put the blame onto the buyer.

ozchorlton
ozchorlton

I sold my old 3GS, to someone at work. I, manually, removed, all the identifying information, accounts, etc. I then did the erase, and the phone appeared blank. Two days later, she informed me that when she restored her backup of her old 3G,she got all my apps. I checked, and there, on the phone, were all my apps :-( Don't trust the 'build in erase', MANUALLY DELETE EVERYTHING!

RTBrittJr
RTBrittJr

Returning an item is not the only way to let other see your personal info, lose track of your phone or pad for a while or lose it altogether. The restaurant may have it in lost and found but who has been looking at it while you were not in possession. If the person in the article had password locked the tablet things would have been different. I have not checked other device but the iPhone 3G and above allow the use of the cloud to locate, lock or erase your phone if it sneaks way. I like that.

Computer Dave
Computer Dave

How nice that Office Depot saw fit to send you a used/returned device when you bought (and paid for) a new unit. It makes me wonder if anyone in the Returns Dept bothered to inspect the unit to see it was was working or damaged in any way. If they had, would be too much to ask that they wipe it? Or at the very least, mark it as "used". Sadly, this is all-too common. I've purchased items at Best Buy that looked to be brand new until the package was opened. The phrase "There oughtta be a law" comes to mind. If i"m going to buy something used, I expect this to be revealed up front. Some sort of discount would be nice, too.

mgauley
mgauley

Bought a used Macbook off eBay. PO left me all of her online accounts, emails, other personal info and some naughty pics. I did a clean install of OSX and emailed her but never heard anything back.

nick
nick

Yes if your device is dead and you have the facilities, take the disk out and wipe it on another machine. But not everyone has the know how, or the capability to do so. That is only an option for some. With solid state drives - such as tablets that is not going to be possible for many, including corporations with IT departments. And if the phone has died it will be beyond many. No actual disk device or memory to access anyway as it is probably soldered to the motherboard. And if you get to that level your warranty has been voided. In some cases it may be best to physically destroy the device and buy another. It is probably time for a new one anyway - isn't that last years model? As for buying new devices and finding that they are pre-loved, I would be complaining strongly. I actually think that is illegal in Australia, you need to inform people if the item is second hand or used even as a demonstrator.

peteloo
peteloo

Isn't it sufficient to use iTune to restore phone to default setting? This should wipe all personal data.

andrew
andrew

My brother once loaned me a spare phone when mine was in for repair. I saw some lingerie photos of his wife in the pictures folder and heard a few screaming matches with his daughter in the audio folder. When I mentioned it to him, he told me he thought he had 'erased' everything. LOL

fletchoid
fletchoid

What to do if you get a new device, put all your personal stuff on it, and then Kaplooey! It fails and you have to return it, but it won't start up so you can't wipe your data? I faced this problem with a laptop, which would not turn on, so I could not wipe it. Fortunately, it was a simple repair, but some warranties offer over the counter replacement, which leaves them with a device with all your stuff on it.

Gisabun
Gisabun

I guess Mr. Detwiler is ignoring Blackberries [after all, people are dumping them for others]. The same problem occurs for those returning a computer. Too much info left behind.

pgit
pgit

I received 2 identical refurbished units from Asus. They both had prior customer data and settings. (ie they didn't wipe them) One would not boot the win7 OS, but booting a live CD I saw customer data in Documents and the email client had been set up. The other did boot but into a German locale, and I needed a password if I had wanted to get to a desktop. In both cases I wiped the drives clean to the bone with Darik's boot-n-nuke, as these were to be set up as servers running Linux. Ironically, they were purchased without an OS, that's the main reason we selected these two. Yet they both had win7, I could have used the recovery partition and had "free" win7 boxes.

tony
tony

I once received a new Acer laptop that had obviously been used - there was a kid's homework on it, and enough personal data that I could work out who it was. Before I dispose of disk drives, I cut a big slot in them with an angle grinder. However, if you return something because it is faulty - maybe it won't power up, then you are entirely at the mercy of the vendor that they will wipe it. Probably about time that it became law for a vendor to send you a signed certificate confirming that where they have replaced anything with storage, they warrant that they have destroyed all data and indemnify you against any losses if they allow it to fall into the wrong hands. Sometimes when returning stuff you are between a rock and a hard place. And of course there are those dumb enough to take stuff in for repair with material that gets them jailed, like a former famous resident in my area.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

But I think the unit was switched in shipping.It's a rare day to actually get a brand new piece of equipment even if it's a pen drive.

pgit
pgit

The transformer is on back order everywhere. The friend who got one and showed it to me had signed up at a web site that reported when various vendors had one in stock. He literally chased the thing down. Another friend has been on a wait list for 2 months. I can see office depot or anybody shipping a return out as fast as possible... the demand is huge and supply extremely limited.

DLeh
DLeh

As far as spinning hard drives go, DBAN is the way to go. http://www.dban.org/ Burn the CD, put the CD in any computer, and boot from CD. It will wipe any and all drives it can find. For SSD, you simply have to fill up the entire capacity of the drive, same for flash. It rotates location so that areas don't get wiped out, requiring every memory location to be filled first. This is not as impossible as it sounds. However, this is possibly for Android phone memory as well if you have the manufacturer/carrier drivers to get into SBF. With direct access to phone memory, a system wipe (except for ROM) is possible. However, I'm with you. Sometimes, physical destruction is just plain easier and guaranteed. The dangerous method for a CD is the microwave (may catch fire, do not do unless you are a professional stuntman) or the shredder. As for hard drives and other devices that won't fit into a shredder, disassemble the device entirely, and run through a trash compactor that is rated safe for hazardous waste. And never, ever, ever, EVER, try to destroy a battery in any way, shape, or form.

n4aof
n4aof

There is no such thing as "purchased without an OS" on any (non-Apple) OEM pc today -- whether the manufacturer loads the OS or not, they have paid Microsoft for the current version of Windows for EVERY pc that they sell regardless of whether it is sold with another OS or supposedly with no OS at all. Because the manufacturer pays MS for Windows, you most certainly pay the manufacturer as well.

Gisabun
Gisabun

It shows you never to shop at the place where you got the Acer computer from. There are ways to get around falty equipment from starting up. When returning, ask them to wipe the drive [of course if it's faulty it generally goes back to the manufacturer]. Alternatively pull out the hard disk and either attach it it an adapter [or another computer and format the drive. Or just put it near a good magnet. I had a friend who returned a computer undser warranty and they replaced the motherboard but wiped out the hard disk and iunstalled a fresh copy of Windows - without backing up his data.

pgit
pgit

If the drive is to be reused, DBAN is the only way to go. I've done the fullest wipe with it a few times, one 500 GB drive took about 4 days to complete the wipe. Normally one pass with the default setting is enough to hide data from all but the most advanced equipment, the kind only an NSA or FSB (KGB) would have. If the drive is not to be used again, I'll wipe with DBAN anyway, then pull the platters and rings out to make a mobile with it. My wife made a great mobile out of about 20 platters of differing sizes, and hanged it in a southern-facing window. The reflections of bright light zoom about the walls, floors, across counters... dozens of spots sometimes all moving randomly, jerking to a halt, sometimes moving on, other times reversing course. We have 10 cats, 2 of them months-old kittens. nuff said (things do get broken on occasion)

Andrzej_Ladosz
Andrzej_Ladosz

...because it will NOT do anything to your data. Did you see what is inside of normal Hard Disk? Very strong magnets! I always recover them them from failed drives - they are strong as (whatever you believe: hell or anything). About 20 years ago we took floppies (5??", double-sided, 360kb capacity, and 1.2Mb) to the Aluminium Smelter plant - where people with pacemakers are prohibited to enter. After few hours of moving aroud the source of heavy magnetic field (busbars carrying ??1,600 kA (1,600,000 amperes of DC current - if you need this clarification). The data was readable without problem after our experiment. About 15 years ago driving small Suzuki SUV across magnetic field created by over 3,000kA flowing through busbars over 4 m away (behind reinforced floor ) was stalling the engine, but did NOT affect data on electronic devices (PSION) and various magnetic disks. If you extend 5m tape measure it stick to aluminium smelting pots and stay horizontal without help; if you drop the spanner, dont look for it on the grond - it is stuck under the equipment. Such strong magnetic field you won't be able to recreate in your "home" lab. This days strong magnet does not affect even the screen - as it used to with CRT displays. BTW: Do you know that CRT's were made for specific hemisphere (north, south) because of compensation of Earth magnetic field? Once I got 20" monitor which the technician could not repair (colours were in wrong places, smudged etc). After letting him sweat for few hours (arrogant type, deserving to get the lesson) I told him that HE won't be able to do it, but I can do it in 2 seconds without any tools. That statement made him more angry - adding some more time to his lesson. When he was "cooked enough" I turned the monitor up side down. Everything became perfect. After few minutes of silence he asked very quietly and politely: "what the F...?". I explained to him that the monitor was probably destined for NORTHEN HEMISPHERE and compensated for the magnetic field there, not in South Africa! Don't underestimate Earth's magnetic field and overestimate man-made ones. Steady, constant (i.e. non-alternating) magnetic field won't wipe data.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The magnetic field never changed. It's not the strentgh of the magnetic field, but the changes that matter. That's why degaussers use AC instead of DC. Carry those same floppies around the outside fence of a commercial power substation and I'd bet the results would be different.