"I love this article. It is exactly everything we check for when we process our phones. We guarantee everything we sell with our 30 day FREE returns, 90 day warranty, and secure payments through PayPal!"
-Tyler Scott, Adopt-A-Phone CEO
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 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).
*Adopt-A-Phone checks every IMEI on Swappa and the carrier site to make sure it is 100% clean and ready to be activated!*
Then, punch the number into your carrier’s website. 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.” *Adopt-A-Phone offers cash transactions locally in NorthWest Arkansas with a 90-Day warranty!*
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.
Buy the right model for your carrier
These days, many phones are compatible with multiple networks. But there are two caveats: You need to make sure the device isn’t software-locked to another carrier, and you need to make sure its hardware is optimized for your carrier.
When you buy a phone directly from Verizon, AT&T or another carrier, it usually comes “carrier locked.” That means that phone will only be usable on Verizon, AT&T or whatever carrier you bought it from unless you ask them to unlock it.
If you’re buying a used phone, you want to make sure it isn’t locked to a carrier other than your own. If you’re on AT&T, you can’t buy a phone that’s locked to Verizon. You’ll either want an AT&T-branded phone or a phone that’s listed as “unlocked” by the seller.
In addition, “some phones have a few different numeric models that work better on some carriers than others,” Mr. Edwards said. “For full and optimal compatibility, you need to pay attention to the specifics.”
That means you shouldn’t just search for “iPhone 7” and buy the cheapest listing that pops up. The iPhone 7 A1660 may look nearly identical to the A1778, but the former works on all carriers, while the latter lacks support for some of the technologies used on Verizon and Sprint. In other cases, you may run into “international” models, which can lack support for certain features (like Samsung Pay, in the case of the international version of the Galaxy S7).
When you punch the IMEI into your carrier’s website, it will tell you if a phone is generally compatible with their network, but it will not tell you if it is optimal for their network. If a certain model is compatible with Sprint’s network but doesn’t support all of its LTE bands, your carrier’s IMEI checker will not tell you — and you may not get the best possible speeds.
If you aren’t sure which model numbers are compatible with your network, check on the manufacturer’s website, or Google around to find out which model your carrier sells; then, search for that on your marketplace of choice.
Inspect the phone carefully
Once you’re able to hold the phone — whether during a physical meetup or after receiving it in the mail — be sure to inspect it for damage. If you’re meeting in person, find a spot with good light, so you can inspect the phone slowly and carefully.
“Obviously, scratches, dents and cracked glass will be evident by handling the phone,” Mr. Edwards said. “Water damage is harder to spot from the outside of the phone, but every phone usually does have one or two moisture indicators — sometimes behind the battery, sometimes in the SIM card tray. That’s one of those things that should be checked once you’ve got the phone in hand.” Before you buy, research to see if there are moisture indicators you can check once you have the device.
In addition, remove any screen protectors applied by the previous owner, which can cover up scratches, and check the camera lens for scratches as well. Plug the device into the wall and make sure it charges reliably. If it has a headphone jack, make sure that works. Pop in your SIM card and make sure it activates properly, and that the phone is usable. In short, do your due diligence.
You’ll also want to turn on the screen and swipe around for a bit. “If an item’s been repaired or refurbished, it may have been a shoddy repair job,” said Mr. Edwards. “That can be sometimes be harder to spot, but give the screen a quick usability test once you’ve got it.”
If you don’t find any damage, perform a factory reset on the phone right away to ensure it isn’t locked to the seller’s iCloud or Google account, which will prevent you from using it. If it resets and you’re able to log in with your account, you’re good to go.
On the other hand, if you find damage that wasn’t indicated in the listing, you can either call off the purchase, negotiate the price down or — if the phone was purchased online — open up a dispute with the seller. Remember, even if you aren’t annoyed by a particular flaw, it could lower the phone’s resale value if you decide to sell it down the line. So it’s usually in your best interest to get a phone in good condition, even if you can get a damaged one for cheaper.
There are never any guarantees with buying used, even if you stick to these best practices. In my experience, though, problems are pretty rare, and for every broken device you might receive, you’ll have many more that work perfectly — and even if you occasionally get fleeced with no recourse, you’ll likely save money in the long run. Just take the right precautions, and you should be prepared for almost any hiccup that comes your way.
Credit: Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
Whitson Gordon is a technology journalist based in San Diego. @WhitsonGordon