published Monday, July 14th, 2014

Gadget Gollums: A guide to help tech hoarders let go of their precious devices

Many Chattanoogans readily admit that they've got more than a few outdated electronic devices rattling around in their closets.
Many Chattanoogans readily admit that they've got more than a few outdated electronic devices rattling around in their closets.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

THE NEXT LIFE

There are many ways to transfer your device to a new owner. Here's a quick guide to the options available to you:

• Recycle it -- Every recycling center in Hamilton County accepts used computers, landline phones, mobile phones, faxes, stereos, radios and DVD/VCR players. However, they don't accept TVs, microwaves, air conditioners or other large appliances. Some retailers such as Best Buy and Staples also will recycle many used electronics -- including large appliances -- for free. Through its ReConnect collaboration with Dell, Goodwill will accept computers at all of its Chattanooga locations. Goodwill employees will then either refurbished and resell or recycle donated devices based on their condition.

• Sell it -- The classified ads, eBay and Craigslist are full of entries for used electronics. Specialized online services such as uSell.com, BuyMyTronics.com, NextWorth.com, Gazelle.com and BuyBackWorld.com will buy used devices and resell them.

• ecoATM -- This national chain of ATM kiosks -- there's one at Northgate Mall -- automate the reselling process by offering up to $300 on-the-spot to sellers of used phones, tablets and MP3 players based on the device's model, condition and going market rate. The kiosk also will automatically recycle accessories or devices that are too old or damaged to be resold.

• Trade it in -- Those interested in upgrading their device can receive in-store credit at many major retailers, including Staples, Best Buy, Amazon, Gamestop and Walmart, when they trade in newer devices that still have resale value. Most stores also offer this service online. Older or damaged devices may not be accepted, but some stores may offer to recycle them.

• Donate it -- If you'd rather know your device is going to someone who really needs it, consider donating it to a charitable organization. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence will accept tax-deductible donations of used cell phones and some electronics. These will subsequently be refurbished and resold, with any resulting proceeds being applied to support its programming. In certain instances, Hamilton County will also accept used computer equipment. A full description of the specifications schools can accept is available online.

KEEP IT SECRET, KEEP IT SAFE

Before getting rid of your used electronics, whether by recycling or reselling, Britain's Information Commissioner's Office suggests the using these methods to make ensure you aren't putting your private information at risk:

• Physical destruction. Physically damaging a hard drive beyond repair requires no specialized equipment (a hammer or drill will probably suffice) and is a surefire way to ensure no one can recover any data stored on it. Obviously, this is not ideal if you plan to use the device yourself afterwards.

• Secure deletion software. Windows software such as Eraser or the "secure empty trash" function on OSX will immediately overwrite files, rather than just making them invisible to the user but still accessible to those with the right knowledge. However, this can be a lengthy process.

• Restore factory settings. For mobile phones and other devices that can't remove their storage media, built-in software can restore a device to its factory settings, the state it was in when you bought it. This is not always sufficiently secure, however, so check with the manufacturer before stopping at this point.

• Send it to a specialist. Many IT companies specialize in the secure deletion of data off hard drives and may return, reuse or recycle the device at your request after doing so. Before sending the device off to be deleted, it's best to perform another form of deletion, such as "restore to factory default."

• Formatting. In conjunction with an overwrite such as "restore to factory default" or a secure delete, an operating system's built-in formatting functionality serves as an added protection against data recovery. On its own, however, formatting will not be sufficient, however, and data that only has been formatted still can be recovered.

Staying technologically current in America is a bit like hopping on the world's slowest merry-go-round.

Thanks to two-year upgrade plans and a seemingly neverending flood of advertising hype about the imminent arrival of next-generation devices, there's plenty of incentive for consumers to stick around for another rotation.

According to Recon Analytic's State of the Wireless Union 2014, Americans replace their cellphones every 22.4 months, more frequently than any other country. This cycle of continuous upgrades keeps U.S. households tricked out with tip-top tech, but it also contributes to a mindset that gadgets become outmoded as soon as they are outclassed by newer devices.

In their rush to move forward, owners may forget about their older gadgets, but they don't always get rid of them. A recently released poll of 1,000 Americans by online used electronics marketplace uSell.com found that 68 percent of respondents had held onto an outdated device for two or more years without actually using it.

According to uSell.com, only one-quarter of pollees describe themselves as "device hoarders," but many Chattanoogans readily admit that they've got more than a few flip phones and VCRs rattling around in their closets.

"Last year I finally got rid of an old Qualcomm phone I got brand-new back in 1999," says Chattanoogan Marie Tuggy. "I got $15 on eBay for it, [but I'm] kind of ashamed that I kept it this long. ... I had a bet with a friend that no one would ever buy it."

For some, deciding not to replace a device is less a matter of laziness or a compulsion to hoard than of sentimental attachment.

Patrick Moore, 25, has held onto the Sony Walkman portable CD player his parents gave him for his 11th birthday, even though he long since began listening to music on his iPhone and iPad.

"I don't think I could ever give it away," the East Brainerd resident says. "It helps me to remember my roots, not to mention ... how fast our society has technologically progressed just in my lifetime."

The glut of unused, dated devices constitutes what experts refer to as "e-waste." And there's a lot of it out there, whether sliding around in sock drawers or clogging up landfills.

According to consumer technology recycler and repurchaser E-Cycle, the U.S. discards about 130 million phones annually. In 2012, e-waste removal advocate STEP (Solving The E-waste Problem) reported that Americans generated 21 billion pounds of e-waste, more than any other country and the equivalent of about 250 iPhone 5S's per person.

In all, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 384 million electronic devices in America had reached the end of their life cycle, but only 19 percent of them were recycled.

One of the major contributors to this growing pile of outdated tech is the underlying cost inherent in upgrading, says Richard Patricio, an Atlanta-based IT professional whose daughter, April Ramsey, lives in Chattanooga. Despite regularly opening their wallets to pay for new phone or TV, consumers continue to feel the sting of their previous purchases and are reluctant to let go, he says.

"They have got so much money invested in that device that, even though they're not using it, it seems almost criminal to throw it away," Patricio says, "so most people hold onto them."

At his home in Hiram, Ga., Patricio has an office that doubles as storage for a few -- "30 or 40" he admits, laughing -- outdated desktop PCs and laptops, which he scavenges for parts to repair other computers. Many of them, he says, were given to him for free by people who hadn't used them for years but were afraid to get rid of them out of concern that thieves could recover data off their hard drives.

The fear is a legitimate one. In 2012, the British Information Commissioner's Office conducted a study of the vulnerability of residual data from the previous owners of used electronic devices. The office collected 200 hard drives, 20 memory sticks and 10 mobile phones and found that 48 percent had not been properly erased. About 10 percent were found to contain personally identifiable information that could contribute to identity fraud or theft.

With this in mind, before Patricio adds a used computer to his parts stockpile, he runs its hard drives through the ringer, permanently erasing the data and readying it for life in another machine.

"Without them being properly erased, you're in danger when you let something like that go," he says. "Most people don't know how to do that and are afraid to get rid of them, and rightfully so."

Not all hoarders see anything wrong with stockpiling old tech.

Ooltewah resident and engineer Debra Kirkland Fisher is unapologetic about her collection of aging electronics, which includes ancient video game consoles like the Atari 800XL as well as decrepit printers, MP3 players and phones. In fact, she says, her collection would be even larger were it not for a "water heater incident" in 2010.

When it comes to technology, change is pretty much the only constant, but Fisher says there's no telling when an older device might prove handy once again.

"I have kept some of it for sentimental reasons, but most of it is still here because I am a huge tech geek," she says. "It is hard to part with anything electronic because it might be useful someday.

"Yeah, right," she adds, laughing.

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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