Hidden Guns and Vermin: PC Refurbishing Nightmares

Have you ever spilled a cup of coffee on your keyboard and felt like a complete mess? What about dropping far too many crumbs into your PC? Times like these can you make you wonder if you’re the last person who should even own a computer.

But it turns out, you’re not the worst. Spills and crumbs are normal as can be and probably even a welcome deviation from the weapons, wounds, critters and carcasses PC refurbishers have found on the job. The following is a collection of horrific tales from real refurbishers that prove there’s much worse that can happen to a computer than spilled coffee. Welcome to PC refurbishing nightmares.

Say Hello to My Little Friend

Credit: Sascha Burkard/ShutterstockCredit: Sascha Burkard/Shutterstock
Gun control is a controversial topic with many layers, but we’ve yet to see the debate take on this next issue.

Free Geek takes electronics donations and refurbishes them to sell for low or no cost. Once, the company opened a donated desktop to remove its hard drive and any other data and found it was packing heat — and we’re not talking about the CPU.

“In the slot where the optical drive normally sits was a handgun sitting in the slot,” Amber Schmidt, Free Geek’s Manager of Technology Refurbishment, told Tom’s Hardware. “The safety was off. The wasn’t a bullet in the chamber, but there were six rounds in the clip,”

However you feel about guns, perhaps we can all agree there are safer places to store one than inside your chassis.

“That’s not the first place you would think to stash a gun, at least for me. It’s not particularly easy to get inside a computer quickly if you need to respond to something. They would’ve had to take the side panel off and actually reach into the machine and pull the gun out to be able to do anything,” Schmidt said.

“In the slot where the optical drive normally sits was a handgun sitting in the slot,” Amber Schmidt, Free Geek’s Manager of Technology Refurbishment, told Tom’s Hardware. “The safety was off. The wasn’t a bullet in the chamber, but there were six rounds in the clip,”

While armed PCs are out of the norm for Free Geek, computers suffering from bullet wounds are quite typical for Rugged Depot a refurbisher focused on military-grade and first responders’ Panasonic devices.

“It’s going to be bullet holes made by either a 9mm or a .45 caliber or an AR-15 round with a .223 [Remington rifle cartridge] or 5.56 [cartridge] or a .308 [Winchester rifle cartridge]. We can actually identify the caliber based on the hole size because we’ve seen it so many times that we know what type of weapon was used,” Robert Baldyga, VP of service at Rugged Depot, told Tom’s Hardware.

“It depends on where the bullet goes through. Nine out of ten times the bullet hole’s going to be in the computer screen,” he explained, pointing to clamshell laptops. “So the screen opens up and somebody might duck down so they don’t get hit with a bullet and get killed, and the bullet will hit the computer screen from the back and go through.”

“When we refurbish those, basically the entire upper assembly needs to be replaced. You're talking the LCD screen itself, they’re all touchscreen, the touch panel, all the antennas that go from the bottom of the computer go into the screen for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 4G LTE … all of those components need to be replaced.”

Nine out of ten times the bullet hole’s going to be in the computer screen.

Baldyga said repairing a computer that’s been shot costs upwards of $1,500-$2,000.

The Phoenix PC


Credit: Robert Baldyga/Rugged Depot

Rugged Depot also works with electronics first responders use. The PC above was caught in a fire and melted down into what Baldyga could only describe as a “melted and crazy glob of gloop.” The best part is that like the mythical Phoenix, this Panasonic Toughbook CF28 was able to survive the flames and rose from its metaphorical ashes with the ability still to turn on and function.

“That’s a testament to Panasonic products and how durable they actually are,” Baldyga said.

The Other Kind of PC Storage


Credit: Valentina De Menego/ShutterstockCredit: Valentina De Menego/Shutterstock
Here in New York, we know how difficult it can be to find good storage solutions. But this next story takes the idea of PC storage to a new level.

Casey Sorensen, CEO of PCs for People, recalls receiving a PC case with two of the covers to the optical drive missing and replaced by a mysterious residue.

“Someone had just been sliding everything into that, from chicken bones to other pieces of food, toys, fast food wrappers and about six or seven pieces of silverware that wasn't like the throwaway plastic; this was someone’s nice household silverware,” he explains.

Sorensen suggested a toddler may have been the culprit, but we still think it’s possible it was the result of an adult trying to juggle a lack of spacious real estate and plethora of chicken wings — just like New York City.

“Someone had just been sliding everything into that, from chicken bones to other pieces of food, toys, fast food wrappers and about six or seven pieces of silverware that wasn't like the throwaway plastic; this was someone’s nice household silverware,” he explains.

Cockroach Horrors

What’s absolutely disgusting and lurking in a surprising volume of unwanted PCs? Unfortunately, it’s everyone’s least favorite pest, cockroaches.

PCs for People staff once found a whopping 25 cockroaches getting cozy in the mid-tower case of a Windows-based PC.

“They shined a light in it, and underneath the motherboard cockroaches just started going everywhere, trying to get out of the case, get away from the light and scramble,” Sorensen said.

The dozens of cockroaches ran across desks and were bagged and wiped away. But eventually PCs for People realized they had an infestation on their hands.

“We ended up finding some in the kitchen and on some of our staff’s desk, and so we had to get an exterminator in and pay them to take care of the problem,” Sorensen says. “It took multiple visits from the exterminator to end up getting the cockroaches out of the building.”

“They shined a light in it, and underneath the motherboard cockroaches just started going everywhere, trying to get out of the case, get away from the light and scramble,” Sorensen said.

Sadly, clusters of cockroaches are pretty common for PC refurbishers. In fact, PCs for People has a method for knowing if an electronic might be the local hangout for cockroaches. How? By sniffing out “a distinct, lingering, pungent mix of sweet, musty and oil.”

“It’s more regular than we would like, especially with individual computers that may not have come from the cleanest environment. The computer is a nice, warm nest of cables and cords where if there are [pests] they like to get in there and make themselves a home,” Sorensen said.

Credit: puwanai/ShutterstockCredit: puwanai/Shutterstock
At PCs for People, items infected by any creatures are wiped clean of any data, stored in a black plastic bag and quarantined in a back garage separated from the rest of the facilities before heading to a recycler. No refurbishing these roach motels.

City Mouse, Country Mouse, Keyboard Mouse

Also disturbingly common in the refurbishing world is finding mice chilling in chassis. Motherboard once found an entire family of mice, and their droppings, in a box of donated keyboards.

“The keyboards were all chewed up. The mice had brought some packaging materials from another box. They made a little nest out of some styrofoam peanuts, and cardboard and even little chunks of plastic from the keyboards and chewed through all the wires and such,” Toller said.

“I think we’ve found deceased rodents more than living rodents. Maybe a couple times a year we’ll find a carcass of something inside of a PC,”  Free Geek’s Schmidt said.

Even worse, the mice made their way outside of their keyboard homes.

“We had little mice running all through our stuff,” Toller said. “One escaped through the back door, and one we know we caught in a trap. One, we think, the joke around here, is that it’s still around somewhere... Anytime anything odd happens around here, we blame the mouse.”

Unfortunately, mice seem to be a relatively common occurrence in this business, be they alive or otherwise.

“I think we’ve found deceased rodents more than living rodents. Maybe a couple times a year we’ll find a carcass of something inside of a PC,”  Free Geek’s Schmidt said.

RIP Fluffy

What’s worse than finding living animals in your refurbishing pile? Finding a dead one.

Schmidt and a colleague once took in several seemingly average boxes of miscellaneous electronic donations. While going through the items, the pair noticed a jar nestled in the bottom of one of the boxes.

“We pull out the jar, and it had a little plaque on the jar that said Fluffy,” Schmidt said. “So we opened up the jar because why wouldn’t you open the jar? And there were ashes. There were cremated remains in this jar.”

Free Geek contacted the donor, and it turned out the person had misplaced the urn and was desperately searching for Fluffy’s memory.

Note that all refurbishers I spoke to who have found a creature (living or otherwise) in an item say those systems do not get refurbished and are instead recycled.

“If I find dead animals in things, even if it’s a really nice machine, I’m going to choose to not refurbish it because I don’t know what could possibly be in that machine and I don’t want to pass that along to other people, “ Schmidt explained.

The Hacksaw Modder

PC modders are known for doing what it takes to have a distinctive machine that mirrors their unique style and needs. Usually this means picking an aesthetically pleasing case, handpicking components and RGBing to your heart’s content. For one so-called modder, it meant taking a hacksaw to a chassis it in order to fit a full-sized PCI card into a half-size case. This was then donated to PCs for People for refurbishing.

“They said, ‘Well, I went to a store and they didn’t have the card that I wanted in half-size cards, so I did a mod to my case’. I was like, ‘I don’t think I would call that a mod,’” Sorensen recalled.

But in that person’s defense, the PC still worked. Half of the card was just visibly sticking out of the top of the slim case.

Are you a refurbisher with a crazy story of your own? Or maybe you’ve done some shocking things to your own PC that would make any one in this industry gasp. Either way, share your stories in the comments section below.

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