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Your Personal Information Can Travel With Your Car After You Sell It

By Aaron Crowe

Selling or trading in your used can seem like a big load off your mind once the transaction is completed.

But even after checking the trunk and under the seats for any valuables you don’t want to leave behind before saying goodbye to the car, there’s a spot your likely to forget about: the car’s internal computer.

Your personal information — home address, address book and personal documents, among other things — could all be stored on a car’s hard disk drive or the in-dash GPS device and could stay there after you’ve sold the car.

Have you ever synced your phone to the car’s computer so you can listen to music or look up a friend’s telephone number and call them without touching the phone? Or hit “home” on the GPS to give you directions home?

Unless that information is erased, it will stay in the car and could easily be called up by the next driver, says Scott Greene, CEO of Evidence Solutions, a forensic expert firm.

Every vehicle should have its own reset for all of the memory components in the car, but if yours doesn’t, the best way to erase the information is to go to your car dealer and watch them do it, Greene says.

Some cars have a hard drive in the dash, he says, and memory chips to keep a record of everything you do electronically, including text messages and calls. A USB connector can also be plugged into the slot in the armrest to sync data from a smartphone to the car.

“If you never sync then you’re probably OK,” Greene says, although if you make phone calls while the phone is connected to the car, your address book could be stored in the car.

During syncing with a phone, the car’s computer is less likely to take website information, such as banking data, he says. However, your banking information could be vulnerable if you keep it in your phone’s address book, which is commonly shared to a car’s computer.

For someone working in the home health care field, for example, they could unknowingly be storing HIPAA data, or private health information, in their vehicle, Greene says.

Along with selling your car to a stranger who could have access to your personal data if it isn’t wiped clean, there’s the possibility that your car could be stolen and a thief could have access to sensitive information that can’t be erased remotely, Greene says.

An automatic garage door opener can also be synced to a car’s in-dash HomeLink system, allowing the new driver to get into your garage after they find your home stored on the GPS.

If your car dealer won’t wipe out the data, how do you do it yourself? The car’s touchscreen navigation system should have an option to return the onboard computer to factory settings, which will wipe out all personal settings. Also, a Bluetooth phone can be “unpaired” from a car to remove contacts and messages.

Changing the garage door opener’s code may be the most simple. Most only require pressing two buttons to reset the code, and the owner’s manual for your car or garage door opener will have instructions.


Aaron Crowe is a journalist who covers the auto industry for