The first time I bought a used iPhone on Craigslist, it ended up being a stolen phone, and I was out the $300 I spent.
When I got home, I plugged the phone in, and it came up with a password. I called Verizon to ask what I could do:
Verizon: What’s the phone’s IMEI number?
Kai: It’s XXXXXX
Verizon: I’m sorry, but that phone has been reported as stolen. You can’t activate it.
Kai: What? I just bought it.
Verizon: You better see if you can return it.
I had just paid $300 for an iPhone 4S and now I discovered it was stolen. What I had thought was a great price on an iPhone turned out to be a scam.
(Update: Nowadays, you can get a used iPhone 7 for $300, but the tricks and what to look for to keep safe haven't changed much. You might want to check out OfferUp too — another popular local marketplace).
When you buy a used iPhone, you need to ask some quick questions to make sure you don’t get screwed. This guide is a distillation of what I’d tell you if you sat me down and asked me “Hey Kai, I’m buying an iPhone off of Craigslist, what should I do to make sure I don’t get ripped off?”
Let’s get started.
How to tell if an iPhone is stolen
Every iPhone has an IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number, an MEID (Mobile Equipment Identifier) number, and ESN (Electronic Serial Number). These numbers are how carriers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc) register the iPhone in their network databases.
All major US carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, Cricket, etc) use the iPhone’s IMEI or MEID to register the iPhone on the network, connect service to the iPhone, or block the iPhone from activation on the network (in the case where the iPhone is reported lost/stolen, has an unpaid bill, or is currently active on someone else’s account).
If an iPhone has been stolen, chances are the original owner of the iPhone has reported their iPhone as lost/stolen. If so, the IMEI/MEID will have been flagged in that carrier’s database, the iPhone will have been blocked on the network, and the iPhone cannot be activated on that network.
It’s very easy to check if the iPhone you’re looking at purchasing has been reported as lost/stolen and is blocked by the carrier. You’ll need your phone's IMEI.
How To Find an iPhone’s IMEI
There are a few different ways to find an iPhone’s IMEI / MEID
- If the iPhone turns on to the home screen, you can find the IMEI / MEID in Settings → General → About and scrolling to the bottom of the about screen.
- You can launch Phone.app and type #*06# and the iPhone’s IMEI / MEID will display on the screen
- If the iPhone hasn’t been activated yet, on the grey activation screen, there will be a little i at the bottom of the screen. If you tap that i, the iPhone’s IMEI / MEID will display
Checking if the iPhone is stolen
Simply go to your desired carrier's BYOD ('Bring Your Own Device') web page and type in the IMEI number.
If the phone has been blacklisted, the result will show that the phone is not supported.
I love to use T-Mobile's IMEI status check page found here: https://www.t-mobile.com/verifyIMEI.aspx that will actually specify if the phone is blacklisted.
And it does not matter which carrier the IMEI comes from - T-Mobile's IMEI Status check page will still work just fine.
How To Find What Carrier The iPhone Is For
The person you’re buying your iPhone from might say the iPhone is for AT&T or Sprint, but how do you know?
You can find out what carrier an iPhone was released for by launching the Settings app, tapping on General, tapping on About, and then scrolling about halfway down the About screen. You’ll see a Network entry that will list the name of the Carrier the iPhone was released for.
How To Contact a Carrier and Check an IMEI / MEID
Once you have the iPhone’s IMEI/MEID, you can contact the carrier and confirm if the iPhone is clear to be activated / used on the network or if the iPhone has been reported as lost/stolen, blocked from activation, or is active on someone else’s account.
The Quick Method: CheckESNFree.com
I use CheckESNFree.com to check the IMEI / MEID on every iPhone I purchase. They maintain a database of lost/stolen iPhones and are a quick and easy way to check an iPhone’s IMEI / MEID.
How To Contact AT&T / T-Mobile And Check An IMEI
When you call AT&T / T-Mobile, they’ll want the IMEI for the iPhone, so make sure you have that ready.
Because AT&T and T-Mobile share an IMEI database, either carrier will be able to let you know if the iPhone is blocked on AT&T / T-Mobile.
I recommend calling T-Mobile directly to check the IMEI of any GSM iPhone for U.S. use. AT&T refuses to give out information unless you’re a current AT&T customer. They’re pretty annoying. I’ve found it easier to call T-Mobile and ask them to check if a phone is on the AT&T / T-Mobile blocklist.
- AT&T’s Phone Number — (800) 331–0500 (Operates Monday - Friday, 8am - 10pm PST) - Press 0 at each prompt, ignoring messages. You’ll get an operator within ~5-minutes
- T-Mobile’s Phone Number — (800) 937–8997 - Continuously press * and 1. You’ll get an operator within ~5 minutes.
I’ve had a lot of success calling a local T-Mobile store. T-Mobile agents at a store are able to check the IMEI database. If you have a T-Mobile store in your area, call the store and ask to check an IMEI to see if it’s been blocked on AT&T / T-Mobile.
How To Contact Sprint And Check A MEID
When you call Sprint, they’ll want the MEID for the iPhone, so make sure you have that ready.
When someone answers the phone, use the following script:
Hi! I’m buying a Sprint iPhone from a friend. I’m not a current Sprint Customer. I’d like you to check the iPhone’s MEID, confirm that the iPhone is not currently active on an account, and confirm that the iPhone is not on a lost/stolen list. Let me know when you’re ready for the MEID.
- Sprint’s Phone Number — (866) 242–1538 (Operates 7-days/week from 8am - 10pm PST) - You should be directly connected with a Sprint representative.
How To Contact Verizon And Check A MEID
When you call Verizon, they’ll want the MEID for the iPhone, so make sure you have that ready.
When someone answers the phone, use the following script:
Hi! I’m buying a Verizon iPhone from a friend. I’m not a current Verizon Customer. I’d like you to check the iPhone’s MEID, confirm that the iPhone is not currently active on an account, and confirm that the iPhone is not on a lost/stolen list. Let me know when you’re ready for the MEID.
- Verizon’s Phone Number — (800) 922–0204 - Hit # and then 0 to be connected to a Wireless operator.
Help! I bought an iPhone with a ‘bad’ IMEI. What can I do?
Unfortunately, the phone you purchased is now an expensive iPod. When an iPhone has a bad IMEI (AT&T / T-Mobile) or bad MEID (Sprint / Verizon / Cricket), the phone is unusable on it’s respective network.
Unlocking an iPhone for use on another U.S. network is very difficult. Your best bet is to contact the person you bought the iPhone from.
If the phone is still active on the owner’s account and they’re the registered account owner, ask them if they can remove the iPhone from their account.
If they aren’t the owner, ask them to accept the iPhone back and give you a full refund.
Unfortunately, if you purchase an iPhone that’s blocked on its network, you won’t be able to easily use the iPhone.
Okay, I’ve confirmed this phone isn’t stolen. What else should I check for
You’ll want to inspect the iPhone and make sure it’s in working condition. I run through a quick 19-point checklist when I buy an iPhone. Here’s what to look for:
- Is the front screen free of scratches / cracks / damage?
- Is the back of the iPhone free of scratches / cracks / damage?
- Are there any dead spots / non-responding points on the screen?
- Does the iPhone’s power / sleep / wake button function normally?
- Does the iPhone’s mute switch mute / unmute audio?
- Does the home button work for single, double, and triple presses?
- Does the iPhone power on when plugged in? What about when not plugged in?
- Does the iPhone screen respond to touch?
- Are you able to record a short audio note using the voice memos app? Can you play it back through speakerphone? Headphones? Normal (non-speakerphone) speakers?
- Do the speakers on the iPhone work? Can you play a ringtone? (Settings → Sounds → Ringtone
- Does the iPhone connect to WiFi?
- Does the rear-facing camera work? Does the front facing camera work? Are you able to take a photo with both? Video?
- Does the headphone jack work?
- Does the iPhone charge when connected to a USB charger?
- Do the accessories (if included) work as expected?
- Does the iPhone have a clean IMEI / MEID?
If you are buying iPhone on network X but intend to use it on network Y, you will need to make sure it is unlocked.
The best way to verify this is contact the respective carrier and ask. The only exception would be for At&t phones. You can use this check tool: https://attunlocker.us/precheck.php
Another issue, you would want to keep in mind is whether the phone is currently on a payment plan.
If the seller stops payments for this phone after selling it to you, the phone might get potentially blacklisted by the provider. It happens in some cases but not a widespread issue.
There is no easy way to prevent this possibility since many wireless providers offer payment plans on new iPhone models. One trick to avoid scams like this would be not to get the latest iPhone version or to call the carrier before buying the iPhone, share the IMEI with them, and see if you can confirm the status of the phone.
It’ll take you ~5 minutes to run through these checks. If you’re spending $200–500 on an iPhone, it’s your right to take a few minutes and inspect the phone. If the seller objects, walk away. This isn’t a phone you should buy.
If the iPhone has minor damage (scratches on the screen / poorly functioning camera / non-functioning home/power/sleep/mute buttons), I’ll offer the seller 75% of their asking price.
If the iPhone has major damage (cracked screen / non-functioning touch screen / damage), I’ll offer the seller 25% - 50% of their asking price.
How to pick a safe meeting spot
When you head out to buy a phone, you’re probably carrying a few hundred dollars with you. Don’t be an idiot. Pick a safe place to meet.
- Public Library
- Starbucks / Coffee Shop
- 7–11 / Convenience Store
- Super Market (Albertsons / Foodland / Safeway)
How Much Should I Pay For An iPhone?
Here’s the right way to figure out what you’re comfortable spending on an iPhone:
- Check your budget. How much can you afford?
- Look at the closing price of similar model / size / network / condition iPhones on eBay. Now, subtract ~20% from the closing prices to account for the seller’s fees, shipping costs, etc.
- Look at the prices of similar model / size / network / condition iPhones on your local Craigslist
Between these three figures, you should have a good idea of what you can afford, what the phone is worth, and what the seller can realistically make from another buyer. Together, this should give you a good idea of what to offer.
So, What’s The Lowest You’ll Take?
When it comes time to buy the phone, you’ll always be able to get the seller to drop the price ~5%–25%. Here’s some tactics to test to try and buy the iPhone at a lower price:
- Ask the buyer what’s the lowest they’d take — Once the seller sets a price, ask what lower price they’d accept
- Identify a flaw in the iPhone and offer less because of that flaw. If the phone has a scratch, is missing accessories, or isn’t in perfect condition, offer the buyer less for the phone and directly attribute the drop in price to the lackluster condition of the iPhone.
- Make the buyer a lowball offer. Sellers want to sell. Make an offer for what you’re willing to pay. If they say ‘No, thanks,’ you can always come up to their asking price.
- Do research to back up your offer. Being able to say ‘There’s another seller who’ll sell me a similar model for $X, I’ll give you $Y’ is a stronger justification for getting a lower price than just making an offer.
- Once you make an offer, you can’t go lower. If you offer $200 for the iPhone, you’ll have a hard time negotiating down below your initial offer. Always let the seller make the first offer and then negotiate down from there.
- If there’s any damage to the iPhone, propose a lower price and offer the damage as justification.
Script: Undercutting the seller’s price
On higher priced items ($200+), when the seller is traveling to meet me, sometimes I’ll use the time and effort they’ve invested in getting to me as justification for lowering the price I’m willing to pay.
Here’s the psychology behind this: because they’ve already invested some time in getting to me, they’ll be more attached to the deal. If I make as if I’m going to cancel the deal or not buy, they’re often willing to lower their price to make the deal happen.
When the seller arrives, I’ll confirm the price they offered, inspect the item, and see if there’s any damage that I can use to negotiate the price even lower. Then, either way, I’ll make an offer that’s ~$20+ lower than the previous price.
The seller has already invested 10–30 minutes of their time getting to me. Are they willing to lose out on the deal over ~$20? In my experience, they’ll accept the lower offer and you’ll save a few bucks. If they don’t, you can pay the full price.
Question: I bought an iPhone for (Carrier #1), but I’m on (Carrier #2). Can I unlock the iPhone?
Here's the short of it: you should really be looking to buy an already unlocked iPhone.
It has become exceedingly harder to unlock an iPhone to use on another network, not withstanding a carrier unlock.
New iPhone models cannot really be jailbroken and 3rd party carrier unlocking websites are not a guaranteed solution. At&t, T-Mobile and Sprint have been known to crack down on unauthorized unlocks. In some cases phones get locked again after an iOS update. Verizon would be the only exception and one may have better luck finding a used unlocked iPhone from Verizon (except for Verizon's prepaid plans which are sold locked).
tl;dr: Look for a phone that was purchased unlocked and can be used on multiple networks.
The best way to check if your potential iPhone model works with your carrier is to go to the carrier's BYOD ('Bring Your Own Device') page and type in the IMEI number.
Notice that this page will only indicate compatibility with the network, it will not verify if the phone is unlocked or not.