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Dangerous truth about discarded phones

If you've ever sold a phone to buy the newest model, your personal information may now be in someone else's hands. (CBS Austin)

If you've ever sold a phone to buy the newest model, your personal information may now be in someone else's hands. Experts say the average consumer isn't properly clearing all their personal information from their old phone.

"The average consumer is just concerned about getting a little bit of money back," said cyber security expert, Chris Humphreys.

If you simply search Craigslist, you'll see hundreds of phones for sale. Several websites offer top dollar to send in your used phone. But Humphreys says, often there is a lot of data left behind.

Humphreys says many people think a simple reset is enough to clear personal information.

But SIM cards left inside can be a treasure trove for criminals -- or people seeking data.

"You're using your social security number for a lot of banking stuff on your phone," said Humphreys. "The second they get that, it's over. And that's big business. People can use it themselves to steal your identity."

But how much data can actually be found on a phone? To test Humphries theory, CBS Austin bought a box of phones in an online auction.

After charging the old iPhones, Blackberries, Samsung and other phones, we turned each one on to check for data.

"All of their contacts are still in here," said Humphreys.

That was just the beginning. On several phones, we found text messages, users' geo-locations and addresses, and hundreds of pictures. Some of the data may seem harmless, but Humphrey's said its valuable.

"You can get the metadata from that photo to find out when that photo was taken and when it was taken," said Humphreys.

Even more specific information like the former owner's first and last name, phone number and Facebook profile saved in the settings

Humphrey's even found banking information on one phone.

"I've got routing numbers, check numbers -- I've got everything for this person's bank account," said Humphreys.

Even on some of the phones that seemed to be cleared completely, data could be easily extracted using recovery software widely available online.

Even our own Fred Cantu (Uncle Fred), who lent us a half dozen phones to test, was shocked when we found documents, pictures and other data on at least one of his devices.

"I had wiped them clean," said Fred. "That is scary because clearing them is something we do when we are going to sell a phone."

Humphreys said companies even buy data like your contact list to make robo calls or send you email marketing.

"It's putting all of your circle of friends at risk as well," said Humphreys. "They're data mining companies that pay a lot of money for that info."

The key to avoiding all that is simple. Humphreys advises erasing or re-setting your phone before selling it. Also, take out the SIM card and any added storage like a microSD card.

If you are still concerned, some experts recommend downloading a large file, like a movie, onto your phone after it's been erased. That file will ensure all of your data is overwritten.

At the end of the day, Humphreys doesn't discourage storing sensitive data on your phone or selling it when you want a new one, but encourages everyone take proper precautions before handing it over.

"You need to be knowledgeable about the risk you are taking on by doing so," said Humphreys.

A professor at Saint Vincent College did a similar experiment in his classroom as part of a research project. Professor Anthony Serapiglia and his students bought more than 80 phones and were able to extract data from more than half of them.

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