There are plenty of ways to buy the latest gadgets and still save money, like opting for a refurbished unit instead of a brand-new one. But in the effort to find a great deal, shoppers sometimes seek out electronics that may, in fact, actually be stolen goods. In fact, plenty of consumers have accidentally purchased goods that were stolen.
Read on for the nine most common warning signs that the electronics you’re considering are actually stolen. On their own, some of them may not indicate that a device was actually stolen. But if you notice multiple red flags and warning signs, it’s a good idea to reconsider your purchase. If you either know or suspect that an item was stolen, don’t buy it.
1. The price is too low
If you find the latest iPhone, a desirable laptop, or a high-powered tablet for an extremely low price online, chances are good that the listing is too good to be true. You should always do your research on any gadget you plan to buy, whether new or pre-owned, and in the process, you can find out what the going price is. If you find a listing with the same device at a substantially lower price, that’s a big red flag. Additionally, if a seller has listed multiple gadgets at the same low price, that’s an even bigger sign that the goods may be stolen.
2. There aren’t any details in the listing
As Scambusters notes, another red flag that a device might be stolen is a listing without any details. If “there is no detail with the listing, just a plain statement of what it is,” you should always ask for more details. Contact the seller, inquire about the item’s condition, and ask how long they’ve owned it and why they’ve decided to sell. A legitimate seller should give you an idea of the history of the device. If anything sounds suspicious, turn around and walk the other way.
3. The seller claims that the item was found
If a listing on eBay, Craigslist, or elsewhere claims that an item was found, that’s probably not a seller that you want to do business with. Scambusters points out that “despite the saying, finders are not keepers without first following a process that includes reporting the find to police.” Claiming that an item was found is a way some sketchy sellers try to absolve themselves of responsibility for a device that’s locked or can’t be activated, so don’t be tempted by a good deal on a “found” gadget.
4. The serial number is registered as stolen
This one isn’t a red flag that a device might be stolen, but a sure indication that it is. It’s always a good idea to ask for the serial number for a device before you buy. When the seller gives you the serial number — as an honest seller should do, since giving you the information can’t hurt them — you should check it via a website like Trace. There, you can determine whether the device has been recorded as stolen. In the case of a device like an iPhone, the serial number will also enable you to check the Activation Lock status, and determine whether the service is disabled and the device is ready for the next owner.
5. The device is password-locked
Don’t believe listings that say that a smartphone, tablet, or computer is locked with a password, but that the seller will provide that password to the winning bidder. If the seller is really the legitimate owner of the device, chances are that they would have already gone through the process of erasing their data, resetting the password, and making sure that the gadget is no longer associated with their accounts. Someone who’s selling a stolen device may not be able to do any of those things, and will most likely claim that they’ve forgotten the password, leaving you with a device you can’t even unlock.
6. The phone you’re considering has a “bad ESN”
When searching eBay for the smartphone you want, you’ll probably encounter at least a few listings for devices with a “bad ESN.” That’s a good sign that you should look elsewhere. The ESN is the electronic serial number, and a bad ESN means that the device can’t be activated by the carrier for whom it was manufactured. An ESN can be bad because the owner switched carriers and didn’t pay the termination fee, because the owner got behind on their payments, or because the device was lost or stolen. You need to know what you’re doing if you plan to buy a phone that was made for one carrier and then use it on another network, so make sure that you know what you’re looking for (which, in most cases, won’t be a phone with a bad ESN).
7. The seller has little or no positive feedback
If you’re looking at an eBay listing, take the time to check out the feedback that the seller has gotten on past transactions. The appearance of little or no positive feedback is a major red flag, and Scambusters notes that it’s also a red flag if the seller’s existing feedback is for transactions on very cheap items. “Crooks use this cheap product feedback to build up their credibility record” ahead of selling bigger-ticket items.
8. The seller is local, but acts suspicious when you ask to meet
There are plenty of legitimate reasons why sellers wouldn’t want to invite you into their homes. But if a seller who’s obviously local acts suspicious about meeting up, even at a public place like a coffee shop or mall, you may want to proceed with caution. Scambusters recommends requesting their name, and asking them to bring some personal identification like a driver’s license or proof of ownership. “If they make excuses, it’s best not to buy.”
9. The seller asks you to pay via an untraceable method
Everyone has their preferences as to how you’ll pay for your purchase. But it should give you pause if a seller states that you have to pay with an untraceable method, like a money wire or a cashier’s check, instead of with a credit card or PayPal. A legitimate seller who’s selling an unneeded device will likely be flexible on the way that you pay for your purchase, while someone who’s trying to evade detection by a site’s consumer protection team or even by law enforcement will likely be more insistent on a specific method of untraceable payment.
If you do buy a device that you later discover was stolen, it’s a good idea to report it to the police or cooperate if the police contact you. A device that was stolen still belongs to the person from whom it was stolen, so you should cooperate when the police want you to return it. Finally, you can try to get your money back through the selling site or via your credit card company.