In the same way that consumer advocates and organizations like Consumer Reports advise wiping a smartphone, tablet or computer before selling, trading in or recycling, it's important to keep in mind that newer cars with sophisticated infotainment systems accumulate much of the same sensitive digital information. This includes credit card numbers and other bank information, account names and passwords, addresses and frequently traveled routes, contacts' names and numbers, and possibly even text messages. If you wouldn't leave your smartphone out for a random stranger to grab and scroll through at their leisure, then it doesn't make sense to leave that same information accessible to the next owner of your car.
If you're selling, trading in, donating, or otherwise getting rid of your car, the onus falls on you to ensure that all of your sensitive private information is wiped out. Even if, for example, your dealership says it'll wipe the car clean as part of the reconditioning process to get it ready for its next owner, you can take some easy (though time-consuming) steps beforehand to ensure your own peace of mind. Let's take a closer look at some steps you can take to guarantee your privacy and safety.
Details to Delete
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cautions that consumers need to start thinking about their cars as if they're an extension of a smartphone or computer, because essentially, they are. But if you aren't especially tech-savvy, don't know much about cars or are even still getting accustomed to the capabilities of a smartphone, this can easily seem like a daunting or overwhelming task.
Here are the steps you need to take as you prepare to transfer ownership of your car:
- Cancel or transfer over subscriptions, such as data plans, Wi-Fi hotspots, emergency communication services and satellite radio or music streaming services.
- Log out of all mobile apps that are included in your car or that pair to an app that lives on your smartphone, and make sure your account names and passwords do not automatically populate to log you back in.
- Clean out contacts from the phone book.
- Delete all maps and addresses from the navigation system.
- Remove all Bluetooth pairings.
- Reset the automatic garage door opener.
- If your car has a built-in hard drive, delete all music and data.
- If your car has removable media storage, like an SD card reader, make sure it's empty.
- Check your owner's manual to see if your car has a factory reset feature, which will wipe out stored settings and data.
The amount of work you need to do depends largely on the age of your car and how many connectivity features it has. If it's on the older side, you might only have a few items on the list, such as Bluetooth or a navigation system. If it's newer, it may take you longer to go through the checklist, but it will be time well spent.
Some of these steps might seem redundant, but they're all necessary. In particular, the FTC cautions that the factory reset, if available, might not wipe the car quite as clean as you'd expect.
If these steps seem too complicated, you do have other options. In early 2019, a New Jersey data security company, Guardian Data Destruction, launched a service called Clear My Data that can do it for you — perfect if you're a technophobe or just afraid of missing something important. Although most of Guardian Data Destruction's services are available across the country, Clear My Data is currently available only in the New Jersey metro area.
A lot of these concerns apply even if you aren't driving your own car. A rental car is a good example. If you plug your phone into a rental car's USB port, pair a device via Bluetooth or use the car's navigation system, the car almost certainly stores some of your personal information. A rental car is especially tricky because you probably aren't very familiar with it, and the last thing you want to do on the way to the airport or rental agency is thumb through a huge owner's manual, frantically trying to figure out how to delete your information (and that's assuming the manual is even in the glovebox).
You have a couple of options. First, avoid pairing your phone to the car or using the navigation system, which isn't especially practical if you need hands-free texting, want to listen to music or prefer to avoid getting lost in an unfamiliar place. You can also check out an app called Privacy4Cars, which is designed specifically to help you quickly erase the traces you leave in a rental car's computer system. The app lets you scan the car's vehicle identification number (VIN) or input the make, model and year. Then, it loads a tutorial with step-by-step instructions to navigate the specific car's menus and find the commands you need to delete your data. The app is free for the first 10 uses, and even better, there's nothing that says you can't use it on your own car.