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How to buy a used smartphone without getting swindled

Brand new smartphones are expensive. That is the most compelling reason to consider a used smartphone for your next digital companion. A lot of used smartphones come with either short or nonexistent warranties, so you need to have a certain comfort level with that potential risk. But if you do your research, you can get a good phone at a great price.

You can find some extra-compelling deals if you’re willing to stick with slightly older models that came out a couple years ago. If you like to live a little closer to the bleeding edge, then wait for when companies announce new phones. A lot of people will be selling the previous year’s model in order to upgrade to the newest, especially when it comes to Apple’s iPhones.

But before you buy a used smartphone, there are some precautions you need to take. Here’s our best advice for finding a deal that won’t leave you with buyer’s regret:

1) Check the network

Not every phone works with every cellular service provider. Sprint and Verizon use a CDMA network while T-Mobile and AT&T use GSM. Be sure to get a phone that matches with the network of your choice. Sales listings should note compatible networks. Be sure to ask the seller for clarification if you’re uncertain.

Tip within a tip: Now that all the major mobile carriers are bringing back unlimited data plans, there are special offers and promotions that might make switching over in your best interest. To see how these unlimited data plans compare, click here.

2) Research the seller

There are a lot of places to go to find a used smartphone. Be sure to vet private sellers just the same as you would for any other transaction. Check the seller’s feedback ratings if you’re buying from a place like eBay, Amazon Marketplace or Craigslist. Just remember scammers could also be hiding behind the transaction. Click here for five major red flags of a scam when shopping or selling on Craigslist.

Swappa is worth checking for used smartphone deals. It’s an online marketplace focused entirely on mobile technology. You can shop by carrier, for unlocked phones or by brand. The layout lets you quickly compare prices, condition and the sellers’ ratings.

Gazelle, which is known for buying used gadgets, also sells smartphones that have been through a quality inspection and come with a 30-day return policy.

3) Scrutinize the return policy

Look for a return policy that lets you send the phone back without penalty if it’s dead on arrival or can’t be activated on your network. Long return policies are nice but don’t expect to get more than 30 days to vet a used phone. Some return policies may be much shorter than that.

4) Look for the condition

A used phone’s condition can have a huge impact on the price. You could pick up a bargain-basement deal if you don’t mind a phone that has a scratch on the screen but be wary of cracked screens and dents. The replacement cost for screens can be hefty and there might be further damage to the phone. You will pay less for a phone with some minor wear due to regular use than you would for a pristine model that’s been babied.

Tip within a tip: If the phone screen is cracked, it’s now easier than ever to replace it. Click here to see how Apple is making it possible to repair your screen without having to haul it into an Apple Store

5) Run the IMEI number

You can check to see if a phone has been reported as lost or stolen. Follow the instructions from the free international IMEI blacklist checker. You can get the IMEI number directly from the phone if you’re buying it in person at a store or from a local private seller. Be sure the number comes back clean before you commit to the purchase. Both Swappa and Gazelle check for lost and stolen phones prior to posting for-sale listings on their sites.

6) Check for water damage

Once you’ve received the phone (or if you’re buying in it person), you can check for water damage by looking at the phone’s moisture indicator.

The location of the moisture indicator varies with the phone. It may be under a removable back cover, under a removable battery or under the SIM tray. Do a quick search on the phone model to find the exact location. The indicator will turn reddish or pink if it has come into contact with water.

7) Consider a refurbished phone

Used phones from private sellers aren’t the only ways to save money. You won’t get the cheapest prices, but you will get peace of mind if you buy a refurbished phone from Apple, for example. Apple offers free shipping, free returns and a one-year warranty on its refurbished iPhones. Click here to browse through Apple’s current offerings of refurbished iPhones, and other products.

Some big retailers, including Best Buy, also offer a selection of refurbished phones.

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