In this guest post, Aaron Powell explains how to successfully buy a used cell phone. Aaron is a high school music teacher who started buying and selling cell phones and electronics on Craigslist to assist his efforts in shedding 89k of debt in two years. You can read more from Aaron and follow his journey at his blog http://nomoreuntdebt.com
It was too good to be true, it had to be. Upon seeing the recently released iPhone 4s listed on Craigslist for $170, only one word entered my mind: Scam. “…On the other hand, it never hurts to call and ask,” I thought. Upon making the phone call, I was met with a barrage of nearly unintelligible sounds loosely resembling the English language. Through the muddled southern twang I was able to decipher two things: 1. This guy wanted to move to Arkansas, and 2. He needed gas money NOW. 15 minutes later I arrived to the scene of a spindly man in a wife-beater hauling junk from his aging one-bedroom home into the back of an old Chevy pickup. Out of the pocket of his tattered denim jeans he pulled it out: An iPhone 4s in pristine condition with the original box and all accessories. Within 24 hours I sold the phone online for $465 and had it shipped off to New York.
Whether buying used cell phones for personal use or for resale, there are bargains to be found on Craigslist. My example was, of course, an extreme case, but thanks to the brilliant marketing of large corporations, most people purchase their handsets at heavily subsidized rates with two-year contracts and are simply unaware of what their phone is actually worth. You, the informed consumer, can take advantage of this anomaly and discover a great deal on a new smartphone.
However, buying a previously-owned cell phone is similar to buying a used car because you aren’t always sure what’s “under the hood”, or whether the device you are going to purchase is a lemon. It is important to take the time to research what you’re looking for and to go through an inspection checklist in order to minimize the chances of having buyer’s remorse about your new $200 paperweight.
Know What You’re Looking For
1. Hardware Variations - The average consumer may not be aware that many of the newer smartphones are issued in multiple different versions, each bearing a unique model number and offering subtle variations. Usually, these are made in order to accommodate the different cellular radio bands, frequencies, and LTE networks used by different service providers and countries, but their hardware can differ slightly in other ways as well. For example, the Samsung Galaxy SIII comes in at least 13 variants, with 7 being available in the United States alone. I have found that Wikipedia is a good source for comparing similar versions of a device, and you can use this as a tool to research which model of the phone will offer full compatibility with your provider.
2. Carrier Customization - Sometimes manufacturers will make a customized model variant branded for a specific service provider, resulting in phones bearing the same brand name that scarcely resemble one another. This is perfectly illustrated by the original Galaxy S phone with its slew of different code names including: Captivate (AT&T), Vibrant (T-Mobile), Epic 4G (Sprint), and Fascinate (Verizon). In my experience with Craigslist, most sellers simply list their phone as a “Galaxy S” leaving you to figure out whether or not it is actually the phone you are looking for. This can be especially confusing when a seller fails to include any pictures on their ad.
3. External Appearances - It is also helpful to become familiar with the subtle external differences between the phone you are going to purchase and a similar model. To the casual observer, the iPhone 4 and 4s might appear identical, but as illustrated on this website, there are distinct external features, and being aware of these could be the difference between purchasing a $250 phone and a $350 phone.
4. Unlocked - Unless sold from a dealer as a “factory unlocked” phone, nearly all phones are “locked” to the carrier they were originally purchased and activated on. This means that they may not be used on another company’s network. Even if unlocked, the phone is still limited to the radio bands of its hardware, and can only be activated on carriers that support that band. Perhaps the most frequent use of unlocked handsets is done by T-Mobile customers wanting to use an iPhone that was originally locked for use with AT&T. Be wary of purchasing devices that have been “jailbroken unlocked” or have been unlocked with a “Gevey SIM”. These are temporary work-around solutions that do not permanently unlock the phone and can sometimes cause more headaches than they are worth. The only way to tell whether or not a handset has been unlocked is to insert your SIM card from another company and to see if the phone receives a signal.
5. A Reasonable Price - eBay is a good barometer on what sort of price range is reasonable for a used phone. The best way to do this is to search through the recently “Sold Listings” and take note of the average sale prices for the last couple of weeks. This can be even more effective when the eBay’s sort features are taken advantage of. If you want to search for the prices of recently sold, used White 16gb iPhone 4’s for AT&T, then it’s a simple matter to check the boxes of those desired features on the sidebar. Many sellers on Craigslist will set their asking price within the range of those you may find on eBay, but you should be able to find several listed ads for $50-$100 less than the online rate.
6. Time the Market - Unlike trying to guess when the best time is to purchase that next winning stock, you actually can know exactly when a used cell phone is going to be “on sale”. This is thanks to companies’ successive product lines that encourage users to upgrade to flashy new versions of their “outdated” 6-month old device. The information on product release dates are readily available online (or at least the rumors are), and if you wait until the next model’s debut to purchase an older phone then you’ll be guaranteed a bargain.
Ensure That You Buy A Quality Device
1. Physical Imperfections – If the seller has been accurate in their ad, then you should go into the deal having a good idea of what physical defects, if any, to expect. Red flags should be raised if, upon arrival, you find that issues went unmentioned or were grossly understated. The few times I chose to purchase a phone in this situation, rather than walking away, I found other hidden problems later on and regretted making the transaction.
Small cracks in the glass, scratches, and small chips in the plastic do not usually indicate internal damage, so how “well traveled” or pristine you want your phone to be is your preference. However, beware of shattered or “spider-webbed” screens and large chunks missing from the casing, as these are usually caused by a traumatic incident. You will want to thoroughly test a phone’s functionality before purchasing a device in this condition.
Other physical issues might include damaged pixels or lines of “static” going across the lcd screen, slide-out keyboards not moving smoothly or not sitting flush to the main body of the phone when retracted, or any loose-feeling removable plastic panels. When buying any iPhone, be sure to check that the two screws on either side of the charging port are still in place. If these are missing, then it implies that the phone has been previously opened, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what might have been done to it..
2. Functioning Buttons – Next, you’ll want to ensure that all of the buttons are operating properly and cause an action to occur on-screen. The most common issue I’ve seen is the side volume rockers being completely unresponsive. Also notice if you’re having to push the power button or a “home” button on an iPhone harder than normal, as this could indicate a possible wearing out or failure in the near future. You should not have to apply significant pressure to any of the phone’s buttons or have to press than more than once. Some phones, including all iPhones, have a “silent toggle” that switches the phone from silent mode and back, so check this as well. Lastly, be sure to engage all areas of the phone’s touchscreen to ensure a functioning digitizer. I have come across iPhones where certain regions of the screen had no reaction, whereas other parts of the screen responded just fine.
A special note about Blackberry smartphones: many of these phones have a roller ball in the middle of the keypad, and about 1 out of 4 of these that I have tested have been less than perfect and were pretty frustrating to use.
3. IMEI / MEID Check – Every phone has a unique identity. GSM network phones have an IMEI number, whereas on CDMA phones this number is called the MEID number. This Wikipedia article is a good source to determine if your service provider uses GSM or CDMA technology.When someone reports their cell phone as stolen, or breaks their contract without fulfilling all of their monetary obligations, their provider will “blacklist” the identification number of the device, and prevent it from ever becoming active on their network again. As of October 2012, all U.S. carriers supposedly share the same blacklist, meaning a blacklisted phone would become useless in the United States. I have heard about these phones being successfully activated overseas, but I cannot speak from personal experience.
I recommended getting the seller to send you their IMEI or MEID number prior to ever going to meet them. With this number, you can call the respective phone company’s customer service line and ask whether or not the phone is currently activated on someone elses account and if it is “clean” and ready to be activated. Finally, when you have the phone in your hands, check to make sure the identification number they gave you earlier actually matches the number of the device they are trying to sell you. On an iPhone, this number is located under Settings > General > About and on an Android phone you can find it under Settings > About Phone > Phone Identity.
4. Camera Check – I have come across a small number of phones whose cameras have produced consistently blurry or unfocused pictures or just did not work at all. Open the phone’s camera app and take a quick picture to check.
5. Make a Test Call – This is probably the most important test to make, as a phone that can’t make a call is little more than a way to have 24/7 access to Angry Birds. If you have a SIM card, you can pop it in and make a call from the device on your own number. If not, and the phone is still active on the seller’s account, then have them call you from it to ensure that it connects. This can double as your evaluation of the speakers to ensure that they are producing a clear sound.
6. Jailbroken/Rooted Phones – When someone goes around the security systems in place on a phone and installs custom software this is known as Jailbreaking (on iOS devices) or Rooting (on Androird devices). Unless you are a tech-savvy user who is familiar with these processes, I would recommend staying away from phones in this state. Sometimes a jailbreak is irreversible, or when done incorrectly can cause the wifi to become inoperable or can permanently “brick” a phone if a factory restore is attempted. You can tell a jailbroken iPhone by its installation of the app “Cydia”, and oftentimes a rooted Android phone will have an altered menu interface or other edited features. People are usually honest about the status of their phone, and many view the jailbreak as a positive selling point, so just be sure to ask.
Accessories – Many times, a seller on Craigslist will not only be offering their phone for sale, but will include any variety of chargers and accessories. Unless the seller’s asking price is exceptionally low for the phone and more than makes up for the cost of having to buy necessary accessories yourself, I would wait to find someone offering a package deal. Rarely do people inflate the original asking price to account for the extra gear, unless a heavy duty Otterbox case is one of the items included. Extras that I have had thrown into my purchases for no additional cost include: a slew of cases from cheap plastic ones to the $40 Otterbox Defender, an FM radio transmitter with cigarette lighter adapter, a Morphie “Juice Pack” extended battery, and any combination of the original box, manuals, headphones, chargers, and USB cables. If you do end up having to purchase some of these items, then buy online at sites like Amazon where brand new OEM accessories can be had for way cheaper than the in-store retail price.
SIM Cards – A SIM card is what attaches your phone number and personal account information to the phone that you are using. This technology is only used for phones on the GSM network. CDMA network phones do not use a SIM but have a unique identifier integrated into the handset itself. When purchasing a phone, be aware that it’s SIM card slot may require a smaller SIM card than what you are currently using. This can easily be ordered from your mobile provider, or can be cut down to size (DIY SIM cutting instructions can be found online), but it’s nice to have that taken care of in advance so that you can immediately start using your new phone. 1st generation smartphones use a mini-SIM card size, and most currently being produced use the Micro SIM. Some of the newest phones on the market like the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy s4 require an even smaller card called a Nano SIM.
Storefront Account Swaps – With CDMA phones, it can be beneficial to have the seller meet you at your local service provider’s storefront. An employee there will ensure that the device is functioning properly and will transfer the phone directly from the seller’s account to yours. This has the double benefit of ensuring that you are not buying a blacklisted handset and having a trained professional give your phone a once-over.
Safety – Exercise caution and common sense whenever you are meeting people from Craigslist, especially for popular items like smartphones. I will usually have sellers meet me during the day at a public place with some moderate traffic and visible security cameras, like a bank. Trust your gut when communicating with a potential seller, and if you aren’t comfortable, just walk away.
Please leave any feedback or questions for me in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you.