It seems that hardly a day goes by when we don’t hear some sort of identity theft related horror story on the news. Often times these stories are related to some huge corporation’s computers being hacked thereby exposing customer’s credit card numbers and other personal data. While there is no denying the problems caused by these sorts of situations, the vast majority of identity thefts never make the news because the incidents don’t involve high profile companies and large numbers of victims.

Given that identity theft is rampant, most people now seem to take measures to protect their identities by shredding old documents, avoiding using debit cards at gas pumps, or perhaps by taking subscribing to an identity protection service. But what about your PC?

As we all know, PCs eventually become obsolete. It’s common to donate aging PCs to charity, give them to a friend or relative who needs a computer, or ship the PC to a recycling center. However, all of these actions give someone else direct, physical access to your old hard disk. That disk’s contents speak volumes about you and can easily be used to compromise your identity.

So what should you do before disposing of an old PC? The most common answer is probably to get rid of any personal data. Although it makes sense to erase your documents and clear your browser cache, that alone isn’t enough. Personal data can hide in areas that you might never have thought of.

Suppose for example that you erased every bit of personally identifiable information from your computer and then donated it to charity. Did you remember to configure the PC’s network settings so that the computer would no longer be able to connect automatically to your wireless access point? If not, then you may have given an identity thief everything that they need to monitor your future online activities. What about the system registry? Did you manually delete registry keys pertaining to things like passwords, subscription numbers, and user accounts? If not, then your PC is likely to contain data that would be very useful to an identity thief.

The point is that scrubbing all of your personally identifiable information from an old PC is much more complicated of a task than most people realize. Erasing documents and clearing the browser cache simply isn’t enough. Personally identifiable data can be scattered throughout your system in areas that many people would never think to look, but that identity thieves know all too well. As such, manually removing your information from a computer is a tedious process with a huge potential for accidental oversight.

For the sake of argument however, let’s pretend for a moment that you managed to successfully remove all personal data from your computer. The next question that must be asked is how easy will it be for an identity thief to get that data back. There are some really good data recovery tools available on the market today. These tools are meant for recovering from a hard disk crash or an accidental deletion, but there are unscrupulous individuals who use such tools to gain access to data that others have deleted in order to protect their identity. If this idea seems far fetched then stop and think about how many white collar criminals have thought that they erased every trace of their crime only to have the incriminating data show up in court after it was “miraculously” recovered.

So how can you best protect yourself when disposing of an old PC? Your best option is to use a purpose built tool such as Prosoft Engineering’s CleanExit. CleanExit performs two important functions. First, it deletes personal data. Second, it performs a secure erase as a way of ensuring that the data that has been removed is impossible to recover. The software works with Macs and PCs and the $19.95 price tag is far less than what a stolen identity could cost you.