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People looking to recycle old computer kit are being given confusing advice by local councils that could lead to identity theft, a consumer group has warned.

Which? Computing magazine telephoned more than 100 councils across the UK asking for information on how to safely recycle defunct computers and monitors.

Only two fifths of them were able to provide concrete assurance that equipment would be recycled. A sizeable number gave questionable advice, while one in seven had no idea what would happen to donated PCs.

"They literally go into the landfill; they get smashed apart," one council worker told the magazine. Many also failed to point out the importance of individuals erasing data from their computers before handing them over to be recycled.

One council worker advised: "You can easily uninstall any information," while another said that leaving personal data on a donated PC "shouldn't be a problem".

The magazine's editor, Sarah Kidner, said: "Our investigation shows the quality of advice and availability of services vary from one council to the next.

"Perhaps more worrying is the lack of knowledge and advice on how to dispose of the data stored on your computer. This could mean that the local tip becomes a hunting ground for identity thieves."

A number of factors have led to an upsurge of interest in people wanting to recycle old computer kit, including growing awareness around environmental issues, as well as the recent introduction in the UK of the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) directive.

Just last week Computer Aid International, a charity that sends equipment donated from UK businesses to developing communities around the world, kicked off an ambitious appeal to bring in 50,000 PC and laptop donations in 2008.

Computer Aid International's PC donations manager Anja Ffrench told The Register that people need to be clear that data stored on their hard drive has been deleted irreversibly.

She added that the person making the donation should also be provided with proof that data has been successfully destroyed, and finally that they can track where their computer ends up.

"There is a lot of confusion about how to completely remove all sensitive personal data from the hard drive, and what people need to understand is that simply hitting delete is not enough," she said.

Ffrench said the charity was confident that donated machines it receives go through a "rigorous refurbishment process" to prevent personal data stored on PCs being stolen.

The service Computer Aid International offers includes a free guide on WEEE compliance as well as a reporting system that tracks when each computer's data was wiped. ®

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