Refurbish Cell Phone: How to remove data

GUIDE TO REMOVING DIGITAL DATA Removing Data from Cell Phones



Used cell phones have value, not just for the opportunity for re-use, but for the value of the internal components in those that may not be suitable for re-use. Like personal computers, these cell phones may contain confidential information that could be used in fraudulent ways. All data needs to be erased from the cell phone to protect the privacy of the previous user. See separate document, Refurbishing Digital Devices - Data Standards and Laws. 




Ideally, donors will erase all personal data before donating the cell phone. However, removing the data should be a priority upon receipt.




The following will be useful in erasing data from cell phones:

ü      Locked storage for donated phones

ü      Work area with a computer connected to the Internet

ü      Procedure for tagging phones with manufacturer/model number and matching to user manual or documentation (perhaps all items kept in a plastic bag together)





Before beginning data removal, wipe the external surface of the cell phone, including keys, carefully with a moist, but not wet, alcohol or anti-bacterial wipe to sanitize the surface.


1. If the user manual is available, attempt to locate instructions for a RESET. If available, follow the instructions to return the phone to the original factory settings. All data and preferences will be erased. This information is often not provided to users.


2. If the user manual is not available, identify the manufacturer and model of the cell phone. Go online to  Enter the manufacturer and model number, then download the instructions. Follow the step-by-step instructions to remove all personal data from the cell phone.


3. For absolute security, the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card may be removed from phones that use GSM. (See Standards in the following section.) The donor may have elected to do this before donating the phone. The SIM card functions like a mini hard disk to store information. If the SIM card was left in the phone, it can be removed and shredded. This will require replacement with a new SIM card for the phone to be made operational again.





American cell phone users are faced with two competing industry standards. While most of the world has cell phones that operate anywhere, American providers subsidize the cost of the phone itself in exchange for the monthly service fees, and they “lock” the phones.


Global System for Mobile communications (GSM)

GSM is the most widely used mobile communication standard, encompassing approximately 80 percent of the global market and more than two billion people. Phones using GSM have SIM cards that are technically removable and transferrable to other GSM cell phones from other providers. This is not a practical reality for most GSM phone users in the United States where the providers often “lock” the handset to prevent this. Also, U.S.-provided GSM phones don’t have the foreign networks in them. (T-Mobile and Cingular use GSM.)


Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA)

CDMA is a cell phone standard widely used in North America, but not anywhere else in the world. (Verizon and Sprint use CDMA.)






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This work is supported under a five-year cooperative agreement # H235V060016 awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, and is administered by the Pass It On Center of the Georgia Department of Labor – Tools for Life.  However, the contents of this publication do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the Department of Education, or the Georgia Department of Labor, and you should not assume endorsements of this document by the Federal government or the Georgia Department of Labor.


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Other Information

Title: Refurbish Cell Phone: How to remove data
Module: Program Operations
Author: Trish Redmon
Audience: Implementer
Sub Title:
Organization Source: Pass It On Center
Last Reviewed: 10-25-2009 5:27 PM