The latest Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy smartphone can set you back $900 or more unless you sign a two-year wireless contract, so it's tempting to buy used.
The problem is that the used smartphone market can come with risks. Yesterday, we offered some tips for selling a used phone safely, but buying can come with its own problems.
You can easily end up with a phone that can't connect to a network because it's been blacklisted as stolen, or one that just doesn't work as advertised.
But there are things you can do to minimize the risks. Here are some tips.
1. If you can, buy from someone you know.
Buying from a trusted source, such as friends and family, is usually the safest option. It's actually the one recommended by Marc Choma, vice-president of communications and strategy for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.
"I've got some friends, they have to upgrade to the latest and greatest every year," he said. Those people may have phones they want to sell, so ask around.
Choma said he himself would never risk buying from a stranger. "For myself, it really isn't worth it."
2. If you can't buy from someone you know, a business may be a good option.
Some carriers sell used phones, as do many wireless stores and online services such as Toronto-based Orchard. Many of them allow you to return the phone within a certain period of time if it doesn't meet your expectations.
This option may be more expensive than buying on Craigslist or Kijiji, but visiting a store lets you inspect and try the phone before you buy, and gives you a place to go back to if anything goes wrong.
It's unlikely you'll end up buying a stolen phone from a store, says Alex Sebastian, who co-founded Orchard to make it easier for people to buy and sell used phones. But he says there's still a risk that a phone has been repaired with a lower-quality part than the one it was manufactured with, or that the store owner won't stand behind its stated warranty.
3. Check the national wireless blacklist.
Canada's national wireless blacklist launched in 2013 to discourage smartphone theft. If you call your wireless carrier and report your phone stolen, its unique International Mobile Station Equipment Identity number is added to the database, and no Canadian carrier will allow the device to connect to its network.
"It's basically an iPod at that point," says Sebastian.
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You can access the IMEI of the device you want to buy by dialling *#06# and check if it's on the blacklist by punching it in at www.protectyourdata.ca.
Unfortunately, just because a phone connects to a network when you buy it doesn't mean you're in the clear.
A 17-year-old boy from Montreal learned that the hard way after buying a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 on Kijiji for $700. It stopped working weeks later when Bell blacklisted the device after discovering that the original owner bought it using a fake identity.
Even after a phone is reported stolen, it can be a couple of days before the phone's IMEI is added to the blacklist, says Choma. For that reason, he recommends buying from a dealer who's willing to take it back within a certain amount of time if that happens.
4. Run these checks to make sure the phone is working properly.
"Phones are pretty sophisticated pieces of technology, but also a lot of things that can go wrong," says Sebastian. "If some of it is broken, it can be really hard to tell."
His company offers a free app that sellers can download to check their phone. They go through another inspection once the seller sends the phone in after agreeing to a price.
Sebastian also has a lot of personal experience buying phones via Craigslist and Kijiji – he bought about 50 phones online two years ago, when his company first started up and needed to kick-start its inventory.
These are the checks he recommends, no matter where you buy the phone:
- Bring a SIM card so you can check the phone's network connection.
- Be near a Wi-Fi network so you can check if the phone connects to the internet.
- Try the camera to make sure there are no dark spots or dead pixels.
- Check the screen for black or discoloured spots and check its touch sensitivity when tapping and scrolling. If the original screen was broken, it may have been replaced with a lower quality screen with poor touch-sensitivity or a pinkish border.
5. Ask the seller lots of questions.
If you're buying from a stranger, Sebastian recommends asking things like: Where did the phone come from? What phone did you get to replace it? Why are you selling it?
"A person legitimately selling will have answers to all those questions," he said. Beware if the answers are vague, if the seller seems rushed, or if the seller says the phone belonged to a friend.
In order to be safe, try to meet in a public place during daylight hours, with public Wi-Fi so you can test the phone.
Sebastian says it may be difficult to arrange a time and place with honest sellers as they'll have their own life and schedule to work around.
"Someone who's too accommodating, his price is too attractive — those sorts of things are red flags."
Despite his expertise, even he got burned once, by a phone that was working when he bought it and blacklisted shortly after that. "It was just because I was in a bit of a bind and I needed the phone quickly."
So take your time and be careful.