How to avoid buying a stolen cell phone

Written by kay ireland
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How to avoid buying a stolen cell phone
Investigate the phone to avoid a big disappointment after purchasing it. (BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images)

Purchasing a second-hand phone can save you money while allowing you to get the model you want. Unfortunately, some sellers on eBay, Craigslist and other online buying and selling hubs use the sites to sell stolen goods. Purchasing a stolen cell phone is more than unethical; it may not be usable if its owner has reported it stolen. By finding a cell phone's Mobile Equipment Identifier, or MEID, or Electronic Serial Number, or ESN, you can contact the appropriate service provider to see if the phone has been reported stolen or not.

Skill level:
Moderately Easy


  1. 1

    Ask the seller to supply you with the ESN or MEID number. It's typically found under the battery, on a label adhered to the phone, unless you have an iPhone, in which case the International Mobile Equipment Identity, or IMEI, number is found in the "Settings." Touch "General" and then "About" to view the number. If a seller is hesitant to give you a number, it should raise a red flag that the phone may not be legally his to sell.

  2. 2

    Research and find the original service provider to the phone. The seller should have this information and know which service provider the phone was originally activated with. In some cases, less exclusive phones may have several possible service providers, so if the seller won't surrender the information, you may have to contact several companies.

  3. 3

    Contact the cell service provider's customer service and indicate that you are thinking of buying a used phone. Ask whether anyone has reported the phone stolen, and give customer service the identification number for the phone. A customer service agent can run a search on the number and find out whether the phone has been reported lost or stolen.

Tips and warnings

  • Note that even if a phone's identification number is clear doesn't mean it's not stolen -- only that it hasn't been reported. The only way to purchase a used phone with peace of mind is to purchase a refurbished model directly from the manufacturer or another approved retailer.

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