Buying and selling a used smartphone on online classifieds might actually be the closest any of us will ever come to the Wild West. We have put together this guide to navigate you through this den of thieves, shisters, and other unsavoury characters.
Online ad listings are notorious for sketchy descriptions and grainy photographs, but they are a good bet if you know what to look for and which sellers to avoid. Our co-founder, Alex, initially bought 50 phones through classifieds to supplement Orchard’s inventory of phones for sale. This guide has directly resulted from his many meet ups and email conversations with prospective sellers. Forty-nine were successful but our one failure gave us some invaluable perspective on best practices when buying online.
Between eBay, Craigslist, and Kijiji, there are easily a few hundred used smartphone listings. Most don’t go into a lot of detail and only have a few pictures. Getting in touch with a number of sellers is the only real option to start. From here, there are a few rules to keep in mind when dealing with strangers on these online marketplaces. One of these red flags may not be an issue, but checkmarks next to a few should be concerning.
1. Too-good-to-be-true listings with bargain basement low prices are often just that: too good to be true.
Some red flags that you’re dealing with a too-good-to-be-true scam: you’re talking to a seller who is willing to travel long distances to meet or doesn’t seem to care that their asking price is far below anyone else’s. You also might notice short emails that lack detail, which are often a signal that the seller is dealing with many messages because of the low price.
2. The only way to guarantee you’ll actually get your phone is to meet your seller in person.
A classic internet scam surprisingly still catches a few gullible folk who send money to an “out of town” seller. Lo and behold, they never see their money or newly purchased phone ever again. Sending money to a Nigerian Princess is the same as sending money to Jim from North Bay. Just don’t do it no matter what the circumstance or excuse you get from the seller.
3. The fact that a phone is new-in-box is not a selling point.
It is your job to question the discounted “Brand New in Box” phone. If they can’t show proof of purchase, who really knows where it came from? If you bought a phone, wouldn’t you open it? It is worth asking why they can’t return a brand new in box phone.
Brand new phones can also be stolen directly from a carrier. Once the carrier realizes inventory is missing, the IMEI (see step 7) of missing phones will be added to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunication Association’s blacklist, sometimes well after the fact. If you are committed to this route, be very thorough.
4. It been said many times before but here it is again: meet in a public place.
Coffee shops are great because WiFi is key to fully test your potential new phone. Take some time to chat with your seller. It is important to ask if they are the original owner, where they got the phone, if is the battery life healthy, and if any parts have been replaced or damaged. Be cautious. A song and dance usually indicates a scammer or a potential damaged phone. “Selling for a friend” should be your cue to leave. Bottom line: use your judgment.
5. If you don’t feel comfortable, take your latte and head for the exit.
The intangibles of a meet up are important. Have you ever had that feeling that someone is sketchy but can’t put your finger on why? Reading body language is a natural human tendency, so listen to your instincts. It is easier to leave than to be stuck with a stolen or broken phone. Genuine sellers are usually open and willing to answer all questions without vague or stumbling answers.
6. Do a thorough check to make sure the phone actually works.
Getting a sense for the condition of the internal components is often overlooked in favour of checking for physical damage, but there is a lot more to a quality phone past cracks in the screen. Start with the buttons. Use the photo app to see if the front and back cameras function. Record a voice note and play it back for microphone and speaker functionality. Connect to the WiFi and play your favorite cat video. Replacing a small part can become a huge headache so it is better to forget about it if a button doesn’t work.
7. Fellow Canadians, use our IMEI checker to make sure the phone isn’t blacklisted.
International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) can let you know if the phone is stolen or blacklisted. This 15-digit number is unique to each device. If blacklisted, it will not be able to function on Canadian networks. Go to Settings > General > About > IMEI and enter it here to find out.
Use it also to verify if the owner, via Activation Lock, has locked the phone, meaning it is stolen. Released by Apple in 2014, the tool locks the phone remotely as soon as Find My iPhone is activated. When buying a device, ensure the original owner wipes the phone and it is no longer linked to their iCloud account, otherwise they still have control over Activation Lock.
And while you’re at it, make sure you have a SIM card on hand. Call a toll free number to make sure the SIM slot isn’t broken and you can properly dial out. 1-800-JENNY-20 is the first number that comes to mind but remember you are testing a phone, not making prank calls.
8. Some sellers are sneaky and even after all the hard work seeking out a helpful seller, you can still bite the dust.
After the sale, the seller can report the phone as stolen in order to claim an insurance payout. You are now the proud owner of a blacklisted phone. Alas, we can offer a solution. Sitting with the seller while you call their carrier to transfer the IMEI to your account is likely to be met with resistance but is really the only foolproof step: trust is the only other option. Insurers have caught up with the scam and in some cases are refusing to insure new phones. The only thing you can do out there is be careful and read this guide to best prepare yourself for a successful used phone purchase.
Overwhelmed? We were too, which is why we have dedicated the last year to building Orchard, a much more refined solution for buying and selling used iPhones. Check out our website or get in touch and let us know about your phone hunting experience! @TheOrchardApp