How to Wipe a USB Drive

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Are you wondering how to wipe a USB drive? Believe it or not, 68% of those sold on the secondhand market still contain data from the previous owner. That’s a problem, because:
  • Cybersecurity threats are growing at a staggering rate.
  • A hacker attacks every 39 seconds.
  • One in five Americans have directly dealt with ransomware.
It can be difficult to remember to wipe USB drives when you set out to sell old devices, but forgetting to do so can leave you in a world of hurt. Anyone can find your old USB drive and see your personal information, and 50% of people who find one that’s been discarded report that they will pick it up and use it.
You can quickly fix this issue by performing a simple wipe on your USB drive, but completely destroying its data isn’t as straightforward as you may think. Here’s everything you need to know about how to wipe a USB drive before you part with it.

What is a USB Drive?

A USB drive — also known as flash drive, thumb drive, USB stick, or pin drive — is a small, lightweight external hard drive that uses flash memory to store data. A few facts to keep in mind:
  • These cheap drives are incredibly common.
  • You can pick up a USB drive at gas stations, grocery stores, and even dollar stores.
  • They also come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
  • USB drives are so cheap to manufacture that many companies give them out for free as promotional products.
Two usb drives together
Since the internal components of USB drives are so small, the plastic coating around them can take nearly any shape without interfering with the internals. They can be shaped like cars, pop culture icons, or even as names, logos, or letters.

The Dangers of Leaving Data On Your USB Drive

Why is leaving a bunch of old data on a USB drive dangerous? For starters, any highly sensitive files on your drive can easily be abused:
  • Threat actors can use names and addresses to commit identity theft against you or your family.
  • It costs more than $4,000 to remediate identity theft.
  • Hackers could use your bank account information to hack their way into your account and steal your money.
  • They may even be able to use old, dusty business documents to breach your company.
In other words, there are a million different ways hackers can use old data to deal damage to you, your family, and your co-workers. Worse yet, it doesn’t have to be highly sensitive files: Non-sensitive files may still contain traces of sensitive information that hackers can follow.
Imagine you left a Word file on your Mac computer’s hard drive that was all about ideas you had for novels. In one paragraph, you wrote about how you used the website Goodreads to discover ideas, and another section contained a list of your favorite books. A hacker may use that information to find your Goodreads account and a username that you use. They can then look through more files, find other websites on which you used that username, and eventually find a way to breach one of your accounts.
Hackers generally look for the following information on old USB drives:
  • Addresses
  • Names
  • Identification numbers (e.g., employee IDs, Social Security numbers, etc.)
  • Business information
  • Family member identities
  • Passwords
  • Bank account details
  • Credit/debit card details
  • Emails
  • And more
A few old files can lead to serious hacks, either because they contain all the information needed to perpetrate an attack or because they each contain enough pieces that can be assembled for bad actors’ use. Knowing how to make that information disappear for good could mean the difference between your safety and becoming the victim of costly identity theft.

How to Completely Wipe Your USB Drive

Erasing a flash drive isn’t exactly easy — at least not doing so permanently. Flash drives automatically move data to unused components inside them as part of a built-in feature that allows them to last longer and operate quicker despite their size. This is a perk, but it also poses some complications for erasure.

For starters, simply deleting data on an internal hard drive or external flash drive doesn’t actually “delete” anything. It simply removes references to that data. Over time, most of that data should get erased on standard hard drives, but it often doesn’t on flash drives and SSD drives due to their ability to rapidly shift data to new areas.
Securely wiping USB drives requires multiple steps:
  1. Plug your USB drive into your Mac or PC.
  2. Drag the files from your USB drive to the recycling bin.
  3. Format your drive.
    • On Windows, this involves opening the command prompt and type format e: /p:3 (“e” is the slot your drive is currently using).
    • On Mac, open the Disk Utility App and find the drive, then click “Erase.”
  4. Format your drive 3 additional times (note: this may take more than an hour).
The above steps should get you as close as possible to a full erasure. This process isn’t perfect, however, and threat actors may still be able to recover data fragments that can be used to find personal information. Alternatively, you can use a digital file shredding solution that formats, encrypts, and shreds data to completely destroy it.
Digital file shredding is the safest and most effective way to permanently delete USB drive data.

Always Wipe Before You Sell

The modern cybersecurity threat landscape demands better precautions. Don’t sell or discard old USB flash drives without permanently deleting your data from those drives first. The last thing you want is a cheap old USB drive to land you in financial and legal trouble.
The team at Shred Cube highly recommends that everyone completely erases any old drives in their house that they no longer use — including those you’re not planning to part with anytime soon. You don’t want to accidentally discard them one day without checking the data first.
Are you struggling with how to erase your USB and other drives? Contact Shred Cube today to speak with an expert about any questions you might have.

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