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How to Check If a Used iPhone Is Stolen

Check If Used iPhone Is Stolen

published by Chand Bellur
January 16, 2017 at 4:41 p.m. PST

iPhones are expensive, and buying a used one can save a lot of money. This article explains how to check if a used iPhone is stolen or locked.

Let’s face it, the iPhone is expensive and it’s not getting any cheaper. Sure, we’re no longer paying the early adopter price of the original iPhone. That first iPhone wasn’t a great deal, which is true of most first generation Apple products. These days, we are getting much more value for our smartphone dollar. That said, iPhones are still very expensive. The cheap subsidized deals are less common these days. Your choice is often to go with an installment plan or bite the bullet and pay full price. If you’re buying an unlocked phone, it’s even more expensive.

The prohibitive cost of the iPhone has created a huge market for used devices. There are reputable online stores, such as Gazelle, Glyde and Swappa, that buy and sell used iPhones. The problem is that there’s a middle man involved, so neither the buyer nor seller is getting the best deal. You can trust that these vendors probably won’t sell you a stolen or broken iPhone. When you buy from an individual seller, there’s no guarantee. At the very least, you can check if the iPhone is locked with Apple’s activation lock technology. It’s also possible for the seller to provide a temporary Apple ID for the purposes of the transaction. We’ll take a look at how to do this later in the article.

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What is Activation Lock?

Activation Lock is Apple’s technology for preventing Apple device theft. Prior to Activation Lock, Apple devices were coveted by thieves. The practice was known as “Apple picking”. Thieves would often look for an inattentive person with Apple ear buds as a potential victim. Apple picking not only resulted in lost iPhones. It also put the iPhone owner at risk. People were often subjected to assault during these thefts. There are even a few cases where people were murdered in the course of iPhone theft.

In New York City, there were approximately 12,000 thefts of Apple devices in 2012. The crime became so common that New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called out Apple and other tech companies to introduce anti-theft technologies. Apple was the first company to comply, developing Activation Lock technology. Once configured, an Apple device owner could track, deactivate and remotely wipe a stolen iPhone. The deactivation aspect is critical, as it rendered a stolen iPhone useless. After all, if you can’t use it, it’s harder to sell. If theft is no longer lucrative, thieves will move on to stealing other devices.

Activation Lock has been a huge success. In its first year, Activation Lock reduced Apple device thefts by 25% in New York City, 40% in San Francisco and 50% in London. While this is a significant success, iPhones are still stolen every day. These iPhones end up being sold to unaware customers who are just trying to buy an affordable iPhone.

While it is possible to break activation lock, the average thief can’t do it. Services charge $150 to break Activation Lock. If you buy an Activation Locked iPhone, you may have to spend even more money to use it. It’s also possible that the original owner could track you down and accuse you of thievery. To avoid both cases, it’s best to check if a prospective used iPhone is locked. Fortunately, Apple offers an easy way to do this.

Apple’s Activation Lock Website

Apple offers a convenient website to check if any Apple device is subject to Activation Lock. Simply open the website in your browser and type in the serial number or IMEI. You must also complete the CAPTCHA, so that the website knows you are a human. They do this to thwart automated use of the website. Tap or click Continue to view the results.

After submitting the form, a results screen is displayed, confirming the device’s Activation Lock status. Apple also provides instructions on how to handoff an iPhone to a different user.

Coordinate with Seller to Check iPhone’s Activation Lock Status

There are many ways to conduct a person-to-person sale of an iPhone. If you aren’t careful, you could get ripped off. To avoid getting a stolen iPhone, it’s best to ensure that the seller is legitimate. Do a search on the seller’s user name or any information you can gather. If this person is selling an iPhone through online classifieds, it may be a one time thing. If you can’t find any information on the seller, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You need to find out if the seller is running a scam. If so, others may have reported the seller. Of course, a disreputable operator can simply change his or her identity.

Ideally, you should meet with the seller face to face in a safe, public location. This is just common sense for purchasing anything through online classifieds. Make sure to bring a device that can connect to the Internet. You can check the device’s Activation Lock status before any funds are exchanged.

It’s often the case that your transaction will occur remotely, and the phone will be delivered via a parcel delivery service. In this situation, your risk of being ripped off increases. After all, the seller can use a fake identity and remain anonymous. With these transactions, it’s best to use a payment method that can be refunded. You can stop payment on a check. Most credit card companies are helpful when it comes to disputing a charge. Going through PayPal may also be a good idea. They have a fairly decent dispute resolution process. It would also be more difficult for a con artist to rip people off repeatedly over PayPal, as they would eventually be banned. Re-establishing their identity isn’t as easy, as they would need to get new credit cards or banking information.

Similarly, if you purchase an iPhone over eBay, there are dispute resolution mechanisms. They also ban offending users. I know this all too well. Someone hacked my eBay account and used it to sell laptops that were never delivered to customers. To re-establish my account, eBay wanted me to provide numerous documents to confirm my identity. Of course, if my account was hacked, it doesn’t make sense to give them even more of my personal information. I personally think it was an inside job, as the culprit was Malaysian and eBay has a customer service center there. My user ID and password were very strong. I haven’t bought or sold anything over eBay since this incident. That said, you are probably better off going through eBay than through an anonymous online transaction.

If you are purchasing a used iPhone remotely from an individual, you might not want them to remove Activation Lock themselves. After all, if the iPhone is intercepted, anyone can activate it. In this case, have the seller change the Apple ID and give you the login information. You can go to Apple’s official Apple ID site to verify that the email address and password are legitimate. It would be best if the seller uses your email address. That way, you can reset the password if you lose or forget it. When you get your iPhone, you can login with the shared Apple ID and change the password. Remember to re-configure TouchID so you can login with your fingerprint.

This scheme is by no means foolproof. A malicious seller can create an Apple ID and send you a stolen phone. There’s no way to know this until you get the actual phone and sign in. This is all the more reason why it’s best to go with a reputable reseller of used Apple devices. You may pay more, but you won’t get ripped off. After all, if it’s to good to be true, it probably is. Some of the prices for used iPhones are hard to believe and they may very well be scams. Despite Activation Lock, iPhones are still being stolen and sold over the Internet. You may be able to recover your money, however, the risk and effort just aren’t worth it. If you are going to buy a used iPhone outside of an established reseller, a face-to-face transaction is ideal. If you don’t mind taking risks, however, you may be able to get a better deal by remotely purchasing an iPhone from an individual.

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