How to Buy a Used Phone Without Getting Fleeced

New smartphone season is here, but last year’s models can offer similarly impressive features at great discounts. These tips will help you grab one without regretting it later.

Apple, Samsung, and Google have all launched their new phones. Everyone in the world is itching to upgrade to the latest and greatest, but not you. You’re a deal hunter, and while everyone else is paying $1,000 or more for a shiny new device, you’re buying a used version of last year’s almost-as-good model for a fraction of the cost. Here’s how to get a deal without getting scammed.
Make sure the phone isn’t blacklisted

Unfortunately, buying a used phone is tricky, said Ben Edwards, chief executive of used-tech marketplace Swappa. “Phones are unique in that their value relies on being able to connect to a cellular network, and their usability can change over time,” Mr. Edwards said. “If you buy a bike on Craigslist, it’s not like the seller can do something a month later that makes the bike not work. But if you buy a used phone, and it’s later reported as stolen, it’ll be blacklisted.”

When a carrier blacklists a device — which can happen if the device is reported as lost or stolen, or if someone sells it while it’s still on a payment plan — it can’t be activated on any carrier. That means you’ll be stuck with a $400 paperweight.

So instead of buying a phone with cash, use a form of payment that comes with some sort of buyer protection. For example, PayPal — which processes payments on eBay, Swappa, Gazelle and many other online marketplaces — provides 180 days of purchase protection, so you can return the device if the phone gets blacklisted within the first few months.

Even then, it’s a good idea to first verify the phone’s status if you can. Swappa does this (among other quality checks) for every phone listed on their site, but if you’re buying on a site with looser restrictions, like eBay, ask the seller for the IMEI (international mobile equipment identity) number or MEID (mobile equipment identifier). Here’s how to find the IMEI of an iPhone, and here’s how to do so on Android.

Then, punch the number into your carrier’s website (Here are the pages for Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint) — you can also enter it into Swappa’s all-in-one checker here. It will let you know if the device has been reported as lost or stolen, and if it’s eligible for activation. It will not tell you if a phone is currently under financing, though Mr. Edwards said Swappa performs this check manually for every phone listed on the site, and if a phone is still under financing, the seller won’t be able to list it.

Some sellers may prefer to keep the IMEI private, and that’s fine — as long as you have a return policy and buyer protection, you can check the IMEI after receiving the phone. You’ll just have to go through the hassle of returning it if something goes wrong.

If you’d rather buy locally and hold the device before handing over your hard-earned cash, Mr. Edwards recommends checking the IMEI in person. “When I was buying phones on Craigslist, I would always insist on meeting in a carrier store for the transaction,” he said. “Then the carrier can check to see if it’s blacklisted.”

Again, none of this is foolproof since a phone can be reported lost, stolen or unpaid-for after you’ve purchased it, but it’s a good thing to check before you do.

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