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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – There’s an important consumer alert out for anyone who owns a cellphone.

Millions of smartphones are being purchased each year, which means millions of smartphones are being traded, sold, donated or discarded. Those phones hold lots of important data.

It’s important to make sure those phones are wiped clean of information before they are turned over to someone else.

Research being conducted at Saint Vincent College shows that not everyone is as careful as they should be when it comes to getting rid of phones.

“The phones of today are more powerful than the laptops of eight years ago,” says Dr. Anthony Serapiglia, assistant professor of computing and information systems at Saint Vincent College. “For most people, their primary computing device is their phone, not their desktop or a laptop, so their entire lives are on this.”

As part of a research project, Serapiglia and students at Saint Vincent College tested 80 phones that they purchased for just $83 from Goodwill’s online auction site. Using software that anyone can buy, they were able to extract data from 47 of the 80 phones.

Pictures, text messages, emails and documents were just some of the items recovered from phones that had been given away by their owners.

“We found one that had been damaged and donated down in Alabama. It belonged to a drug dealer. There were drug deals on it, prostitution and gambling all in emails and text messages,” says Serapiglia.

Another phone had pictures and the owner’s name in a document. Serapiglia says that type of information can be used to steal your identity.

“It’s a treasure trove for identity theft. Thieves are trying to build a story around you, so they can impersonate you, so they can open accounts in your name and make a good story,” says Serapiglia.

Before you give your phone away or sell it, Serapiglia says you need to do a few things to clear it.

Here’s what he recommends:

  1. Remove all added storage (MicroSD cards)
  2. If you have not already encrypted the phone – do so. It will only take a couple of minutes. Again, it’s built into iOS for iPhones and Android after KitKat.
  3. Remove the SIM Card if possible.
  4. Perform the factory reset. Each phone is different – check the websites for your manufacturer or your cell phone provider. A reset should take less than five minutes.
  5. Set up the phone again and then transfer several large data files to it. Use files that contain no identifying data on you. Movie files are easiest because they are large. Move as much over as will fill the entire storage capacity of the phone. Doing this will ensure that the previous data stored on the phone is entirely overwritten by new data that has nothing to do with you.
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