How To: Avoid Buying a Stolen Used Cell Phone

11 months ago Jack 0
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If you’re trying to save money, you might be looking at buying a used phone. Whether it’s on Craig’s List or eBay, you always run the risk of getting a phone that’s been reported stolen or has been banned from use on the carrier you use. Here are some tips that will help you avoid the costly mistake of buying a hot phone.

First, let me just say that a stolen phone and a phone that someone kept from their carrier after not paying their bills are virtually the same thing. Both are theft. In both cases, most carriers are going to treat them exactly the same way; they’ll ban them from use. For moral reasons, when I buy a phone, I will refuse any phone that is banned, unable to be activated, or has been tampered with in a way that suggests illegal activities. I suggest you do the same.


TIP 1: Check the ESN / MEID / IMEI

You should always ask sellers for the ESN, MEID, or IMEI of their phone. Nowadays, the IMEI is usually the one to get, but the IMEI and MEID typically only differ by the last digit and the ESN is all but gone. This number identifies the phone to the network and is unique to that phone. You can take this number to websites like and it will tell you whether or not the phone has been banned from any networks. In my experience, websites like that are not always reliable. They sometimes miss reasons why you wouldn’t be able to activate a phone.

So, what I suggest you do is either call the carrier directly and ask for them to check it out. You’ll want them to make sure that the phone is:

  • not active on any accounts
  • not listed as stolen or lost
  • does not have any other barriers to you activating the phone in your name

When I call to ask those questions, I specifically ask if there are any issues that might block me from activating the phone. If the customer service rep gives me the all-clear, things are looking up. Also, verify what model phone you’re talking about with the customer service representative. They should be able to identify the phone’s details from the IMEI. It is possible for sellers to give you the incorrect IMEI, or to give you a good one in the hopes that you won’t notice a change when you pick up the phone. Always check the phone to make sure that the number they gave you is on a sticker on the phone, or at least in the settings. If there is no sticker, and you think the phone may have been tampered with to change the IMEI, then just walk away. I expect that that scenario won’t appear very often for you.

One of the best things you can do is ask the seller to go to a carrier’s retail location with you and check out the phone. They can make sure it is deactivated from the seller’s account and ready for you to use. If the seller refuses or doesn’t show up, then count yourself lucky that you dodged a bullet and didn’t buy a stolen phone.


TIP 2: Check for Functionality / Password Protection

Never buy a phone that the seller can’t unlock. If the phone isn’t charged, or the seller doesn’t know the password, then he’s wasting your time and probably trying to sell you stolen goods. Any owner of a phone should be able to get into their own device. It’s not worth the risk to buy some guy’s story about how he forgot it, or his girlfriend changed the password and won’t tell him. He probably either found or swiped that phone and you don’t want to touch it. Don’t help criminals profit from bad deeds!


TIP 3: Scope out the Seller

This is where your experience with people comes in handy. Does the seller only answer in really short sentences? Do they sound like they are trying to hide details? Do they have the original charger, USB cable, or anything that came with the phone? Did they take care of it? Answers to those questions can be red flags for me.

If a seller barely knows what model phone he has and can’t provide any of the original accessories with the phone, he probably doesn’t own it. Look at this in the context of Tip 2.


These tips aren’t fraud proof. A thief who wants to put in some serious effort could theoretically manage to fool you on all of these. Fortunately, most thieves turn to theft because they are lazy. In my experience, obeying these prudent tips will help you avoid shady goods, even if they can’t catch everything.