Woman Donates Cellphone To Charity, But It Ends Up On Ebay With Personal Info Intact

People! Always wipe your cell phone before you sell it, give it away, or trade it in. Do not assume or expect that someone else will do this for you! This was just one of the mistakes that led to Rachel Swanson being called by strangers several weeks after she thought she donated her old phone to charity. But the store that handled the donation, and the company responsible for actually processing the donated phones, screwed up their parts, too. Here’s how it was supposed to have work, and what you should always do before donating your phone to any organization.

To begin with, Wireless Lifestyle, the authorized Sprint dealer that accepted Swanson’s phone, didn’t sufficiently explain the process to Swanson. Wireless Lifestyle partners with Flipswap, a company that accepts used cellphones in exchange for store credit or donations to charity. Flipswap takes in these used cellphones—”between 40,000 and 45,000 phones a month,” according to the Wichita Eagle—and resells them on eBay or to overseas distributors.

Swanson could have either taken a store credit or agreed to have any proceeds from the phone donated to a charity. For whatever reason, she thought the phone itself was going to charity. We don’t really care one way or the other in this case, but wanted to explain to you how Flipswap actually works so that you’ll know better than Swanson should you decide to donate your phone through them.

As for not wiping the phone before reselling it, Flipswap told the newspaper that although they try to erase every phone that passes through, they’re not contractually obligated to do so.

You, however, are obligated to do so, if you value your privacy at all. If you don’t know how to erase the date on your phone, visit Recellular’s Data Eraser page, where you can download step-by-step instructions on a wide variety of models. (And if you can’t find your phone there, try Googling terms like “reformat” or “erase” and your phone model.)

The Wichita Eagle also offers some tips on what you should do before buying a used phone. The most important—well, after making sure the phone will work with your carrier, of course—is to ask for the phone’s electronic serial number (ESN) before you purchase it, then contact your carrier and verify that the ESN isn’t blocked. From what we understand, very few carriers actually block ESNs with any regularity, because it’s not in their financial interest to do so, but better safe than sorry.

“Be aware if you buy or sell a used cell phone” [Wichita Eagle] (Thanks to myvotecounts2008!)
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Zeniq says:

    I have a friend who, rather than erasing his phones and donating/selling them, simply smashes them with a hammer. Poof! No more private data!

  2. GiselleBeardchen says:

    Most cell phones coming off of a typical 2 year contract, will surprisingly bring $40-$70 (depending on model) on Ebay. Nice if you can afford to donate to charity, but I think if more people realized what they can be worth, a lot more people would be selling themselves on Ebay.

    • shefarted says:


      “a lot more people would be selling themselves on Ebay.”

      Prostitution? Wow, eBay is branching out.

    • crazylady says:

      This is so freaking ridiculous. Flipswap (I’ve used them many times before) explicitly tell you to erase the data on your phone/device before sending it in. Perhaps the woman in the story didn’t get this cause she did it in-store, but online they definitely hammer that point in.

      @GiselleBeardchen: flipswap gave me a better deal on all my phones (including a first generation iPhone) with no work, plus all ebay was doing was telling me my devices, especially my iPhone, were counterfeit. thanks ebay.

      @Byzantine: I don’t dislike that advice, but except for the iPhones the only reason why I ever got a new phone was because the old one was all busted so fixing the old phone would have cost more than some options (e.g. buying another phone from craigslist, ebay, etc.). Anyway, while trying to sell my first iPhone, I thought “to hell with it” and just ended up flipswapping every single phone and old iPod I could find…and for three people over ten years, that was quite a lot :D

    • jamar0303 says:

      @GiselleBeardchen: $40-$70? I could probably get a good $200 off of mine (paid about $300 for it). You just have to buy decent phones that retain their value well over time (ie. from Korea or Japan, especially Japan).

  3. quail says:

    I don’t use my phones for anything but phone # storage, calendar, and voice notes. Never trusted them to handle any truly sensitive data like email and the like. Glad to see that my developing ‘old person’ ways are benefiting me. // trundles off to check the ticker tape machine and to change the ice in the ice box //

  4. Amy Alkon000 says:

    Can’t you just take your SIM card out with a tweezers before donating the phone? I use my ATT/former-Cingular phone in France with my Orange.fr SIM card. Once I take out my Los Angeles SIM card and insert my Paris one, I have all my Paris info and none of my LA info.

    • SybilDisobedience says:

      @Amy Alkon: I had an old (OLD) Ericsson that I donated a few months ago. I wiped the SIM card, but still had to go into the phone and wipe my info from all the folders in there – received messages, phonebook, etc. Sometimes it doesn’t all clear just because you pull the SIM card out.

      Anyway, some donation places want you to include the SIM card in your donation. They’ll supposedly wipe it if you don’t, but we all know that ain’t necessarily so.

    • johnva says:

      @Amy Alkon: Some phones, in addition to the storage on the SIM card, also can store data on memory that is part of the phone itself.

    • temporaryerror says:

      @Amy Alkon:
      Also, not all phones use SIM cards. Except for ATT & Tmobile in the US, phones have the info hard programmed into them. There is no sim card to remove.

    • spanky says:

      @Amy Alkon: SIM cards are primarily used on GSM networks. Most (all?) US based CDMA providers don’t use them.

      And even on phones with SIM cards, some personal info might still be stored on your phone. Your best bet is to look up your model and find out how to do a reset. It’s not hard or anything, so there’s no excuse for smashing working electronics. It’s just an extra step is all.

    • ellastar says:

      @Amy Alkon: In this case, the OP’s phone was a Sprint phone, which is CDMA and therefore saves everything to the phone’s internal memory. No GSM SIM card.

      • crazylady says:

        @ellastar: many gsm phones save data to the phone and not *all* on the sim anyway, so no matter what kind of phone you have you should doublecheck.

    • bwcbwc says:

      @Amy Alkon: And the TSA detains you in L.A. asking why you’re trying to hide your identity.

  5. Blitzgal says:

    Fear over this sort of thing is the reason I still have my old cell phone and my old PC tucked away in a closet. Good thing I’m a slow adapter otherwise I’d probably have like four computers and six cell phones in my closet, heh.

  6. lol_wut says:

    I bought a Blackberry on Craig’s List two weeks ago this coming Thursday. The previous owner was on Verizon and left for Sprint because of the $99 all-you-can-eat plan. So for $100 I got a Blackberry 8830 World Edition phone. In lieu of a camera on the phone, I had access to his personal e-mail for 72 hours while I took the case up with the previous owner and Verizon.

  7. waitaminute says:

    EVERYONE should know about and use http://www.ripmobile.com.

    Here’s how RipMobile works:
    “The RIPMobile program helps you transform your drawer full of unused cell phones into something you’d rather have – cool stuff! You tell us what old (and not-so-old) mobile phones you have sitting in a drawer or on a shelf around the house. We calculate the value of those phones (some PDAs have value too), and tell you what they are worth (we pay you in RIPMobile points” – a “point” is worth a dollar). You then send those phones and their accessories in to us so we can inspect and test them. We can only pay you for working phones and PDAs, but we can recycle ALL mobile devices you send us, so don’t throw any away just because they aren’t valuable – they ALL have toxic materials in them.

    We triage, test and pay you for working phones per the terms of the user agreement.

    RIPMobile can pay you top-dollar value for your old cell phones because we have buyers for these phones all over the world. Those phones may be old to you, but will probably be the first phones our customers on the other side of the world have ever owned

    RIPMobile will issue you RIPMobile “points” for the value of these phones – a point is worth a dollar. YOU tell us how you want to spend the points, and we will issue you gift certificates for the vendors you select. You can get almost anything from hot music to cool clothes to electronics or games – whatever you want – even cash via paypal. there are literally millions of choices available. We’ll be adding new partners with choices in the coming weeks, so check back when you get the points for your phones, you may have even more to choose from.”

    Collect all your coworkers & friends’ used phones, pda’s & accessories, and send them to RipMobile. RipMobile even pays for shipping! I did this, and RipMobile sent me $400. A referral program is in place also.

    You should be absolutely certain your phone(s) are data-cleared (truth: not everything is saved to SIM… photos etc are most often saved to internal memory) before you send them.

    Even if your phone isn’t worth anything, RipMobile still accepts it and responsibly destroys/recycles it.

    • lol_wut says:


      My Verizon LG VX8350 was listed at $3. My Blackberry 8830 was listed @ $30.

      Sorry, but that site is LAME. I’d rather deal with local buyers on Craig’s List and actually get something for my phone.

    • BrianDaBrain says:

      I barely trust my bank to keep my personal information private, so there is no way I’d trust some strange donation company to wipe my data. I’d wipe it clean before donating it.

      Thanks for the info, though.

      @waitaminute: So… who exactly has a “drawer full of unused cell phones”? I’ve owned 4 in my life and thought I was about on par with the curve.

      • lol_wut says:


        When I worked for Cingular, and got a new phone about every 3 months, I eventually had enough phones to fill a drawer with. To be honest, I never thought about selling them since they were practically new phones with a lot of life left in them. I could have made a mint.

      • dvdchris says:

        @BrianDaBrain: The average time for a consumer to keep a cell phone is 18 months in the US. That’s been since 2001 or so. So a lot of people have 5-6 phones in the drawer if they never got rid of them. I’m on my 9th phone.

        • lol_wut says:


          How many phones have I had? Lets see:

          Cingular Wirless as an employee:

          1) Nokia 5120 (TDMA)

          2) Nokia 8820 (TDMA)

          3) Nokia 3360 (TDMA)

          4) Nokia 7120 (TDMA)

          5) Sony Ericsson T61D (TDMA)

          6) 2nd Nokia 3360 (TDMA)

          7) Nokia 6340 – The GAIT Phone (TDMA / GSM)


          Cingular Wireless / AT&T as a consumer:

          8) Some random Sony Ericsson Go Phone (GSM)


          Verizon Wireless as a consumer:

          9) LG VX5200 (CDMA)

          10) Samsung SCH-u540 (CDMA)

          11) Samsung SCH-a870 (CDMA)

          12) Pantech PN-300 (CDMA)

          13) 2nd Samsung SCH-540 (CDMA)

          14) LG VX8350 (CDMA)

          15) Blackberry 8830 World Edition (CDMA / GSM)

          • jamar0303 says:

            @sw4383: (sorry for the doublepost)

            And on that topic-

            AT&T Wireless (pre-Cingular):
            Sony Ericsson T68i
            Sony Ericsson P800 (imported from Hong Kong)
            Sanyo SCP-5300 (great phone, crap provider)
            Nokia 6820 (again, imported from Hong Kong)
            Nokia 6670 (imported- you know the drill)
            AT&T (post-Cingular):
            Sharp V902SH (imported from Japan, best cameraphone I’ve ever used- pictures actually look like they came from a normal camera; enough about that- did you know it’s one of the first internationally released cameraphones with optical zoom?)
            Sanyo V801SA (import- good ol’ Sanyo, except I actually get to use it on a decent provider this time- it only cost me $30 no contract and does better than the GoPhones that AT&T carries for twice the price)
            Toshiba V904T (import again- only bought it because I lost my Sharp; 3.2MP instead of only 2MP but I miss the optical zoom; this seems to be more of a music-oriented phone)

            Toshiba 811T (stupid thing broke on me in 6 months- remind me to never buy the last of a discontinued product that’s still in stock 6 months post-discontinuation)

    • eelmonger says:

      @sw4383: Yeah, that site sonds a lot like Best Buy’s used electronics program where they were offering you like 10% of the actual used value of the product. Basically sites like are for the convenience factor of not having to sell the phone yourself, but to me, selling it on eBay or Amazon or Craigslist is worth it since it means significantly more money.

  8. SharanyaMed?n says:

    “For whatever reason, she thought the phone itself was going to charity.”

    Many phone companies, e.g. Verizon, do allow you to drop off your old phone
    for donation; they wipe the information and program all keys to dial 911,
    and give the phones to (primarily) women living in abusive situations.

    That said, always always always wipe your info!! But the woman in question
    probably just got her drop-off centers mixed up.

  9. lisa1120 says:

    This is very timely. I’m just about to send a couple cell phones off to a site I found: recyclemycellphone.org.

    On one of the phones, the battery died so I can’t even turn on the phone any longer. I know there’s personal data on the phone but I have no way of getting in to erase the data. Should I still send it in, or just smash it with a hammer?

  10. Byzantine says:

    A few years ago, I was having problems with my Razor (surprise, surprise) and I was reluctant to buy a new phone for a few hundred bucks.

    A CSR gave me a good piece of advice that I follow to this day: Whenever you get a new phone, take your old phone, wrap it up nicely, and stick it in a safe place. That way, if you new phone ever breaks, all you have to do is pay the activation fee for the old phone, instead of shelling out 200-300 dollars for a new phone.

    Since then, every old phone that I’ve found around the house has gone into a box in my closet. I won’t be stranded on a contract with a broken phone ever again.

    • econobiker says:

      @Byzantine: That also works if you leave your phone on the bedside of a pickup truck and drive onto the interstate… I did find the case, part of the screen and chassis and the rubber part of the key pad. This “Oops” wasn’t too bad since I knew no one would be using it so I got a new sim card issued for free and stuck it into the old phone – no activation fee.

  11. rockergal says:

    I give my old cell phones either to shelters (I personally drop them off along with other donations) Or my hubby. He uses them as target practice. It is a very soothing thing to see a phone getting blown to bits.

  12. Oranges w/ Cheese says:

    This happened to me! I donated my phone to Goodwill and about 3 weeks later I received a call that it had been found in a dumpster about 50 miles away.
    Needless to say, I was somewhat shocked, but the guy that found it said he was a car junker and that he’d crush it in his next car.