Buying a Used Phone? Be Careful!

You need a new smartphone, but your budget is tight. Can you save money by buying a used phone? Absolutely. You just need to be careful to avoid getting a bad deal or losing your money.

Where to buy

The first question is where and how to buy the phone. Buying something from a stranger over the internet is risky. Classified ads have a lot of good deals, but there are many cheats offering stolen or damaged goods. Some will take your money and not deliver anything.

The safest way to buy a used phone is to get a refurbished one from a manufacturer or carrier. The phone will be in good shape, and you’ll usually get a warranty. If you get a previous-generation phone, you can save a fair amount.

If you’d like to save more, you’ll have to try other channels. On Amazon or eBay, you can look for a seller with a high reputation score. It’s a bit riskier than buying a manufacturer’s refurbished phone, but you might still find it acceptable. Look for someone who accepts returns.

A store or kiosk that sells used phones is another reasonably safe option. You can examine phones till you find one that you like, and you can ask all the questions you want. Just be careful of a kiosk that opened the day before or a dealer at a flea market.

Buying from a friend, or someone a friend can personally vouch for, is also pretty safe. You can ask your social network contacts if anyone’s looking to sell a phone or knows someone who is.

Buying from a stranger is a lot riskier. If you go that route, follow every step here carefully to make sure you don’t get shafted.

What kind of phone?

Do you have a preferred operating system? Some people have strong preferences for iOS or Android. An adventurous few prefer Windows phones or even Blackberries. iPhones tend to be expensive, whether new or used, but they may be worth it to you. They have fewer security problems, if only because Apple gives their owners fewer choices about where to install software from. Android gives you many choices of models, capabilities, and price ranges.

Questions to ask

If you’re buying from a private party, ask lots of questions. Just doing that will drive many scammers away. They prefer to deal with people who’ll accept a pig in a poke.

Ask for the phone’s ID number. This is called the ESN, MEID, or IMEI. You can check it with online services such as Swappa and CheckMEND for reports that the phone has been blacklisted. Stolen phones can be blacklisted, as well as ones with accounts in arrears. Not all stolen phones will show up as blacklisted, but it helps.

Ask if the battery and camera work well, and if the phone’s ever been water damaged. You won’t necessarily get honest answers, but you’ll put the seller on notice that you’re being thorough. That can help scare away the cheats.

Phones that have replaceable batteries are better bets for buying used. Check the manufacturer’s data on the model.

Ask if the phone is locked to a network. It’s not necessarily a problem if it is, but make sure that any locations you often use can get good connections to the network.

Even if it’s unlocked, make sure your preferred carrier can handle the phone. There are GSM and CDMA phones, and carriers handle one or the other. They’re two different technologies.

Buying the phone

If you buy on eBay, PayPal is the safest way to pay. PayPal Protection will help if your purchase isn’t satisfactory, and you avoid giving anybody a credit card number.

If you’re buying from an individual, arrange an in-person meeting in a public, well-lit place. That not only reduces your chances of being mugged but makes it easier for you to examine the phone. Bring cash. If possible, bring a friend with you.

Go through this checklist, taking your time:

  • Check that the identification number matches the one you were given. On an Android phone, you can check by dialing “*#06#”.
  • Is the battery level reasonably high?
  • Does it charge when you plug in the charger? If the seller tells you the phone doesn’t come with a charger, bring your own.
  • Is it free of signs of water damage or hard use?
  • Are the screen and the camera lens free of scratches?
  • Does the Wi-Fi work?

After you buy

Before doing anything else, do a full reset on the phone. That will get rid of nearly all malware, as well as respecting the seller’s privacy. You might be tempted not to do this because the seller told you it comes with some great apps, but it’s better to avoid the risk. This advice doesn’t apply to refurbished phones from certified sellers; whatever the phone comes with should be safe.

Install security software at the first opportunity. This is good advice in general, and it gives you an extra level of protection when you don’t know your phone’s history.

Register your phone with your carrier as soon as possible, so you’re sure it works.

Final thoughts

Buying any complicated devices used has its risks. Some ways of doing it are relatively safe; others will save you more but involve a bigger chance of being cheated. Decide how badly you need to save money and what your comfort level is.

If you want to save money but are nervous about buying used, consider buying a discontinued model. You won’t get all the power and features of the latest model, but you may get enough.

Finally, if you’re shopping because your old phone is behaving erratically, consider getting it fixed! Contact us to have your phone checked over; we may be able to get it running as well as anything you’d buy, for less money!