You’ve probably heard the saying “if a deal is too good to be true, it probably is.” That is very often the case when buying a device on the secondary market. There’s a reason someone is selling a phone for a fraction of the retail price – frequently because it’s stolen.

And it’s not just phones. Bad guys may try to sell other things too, like connection services or data plans.

Secondary Market Scam Animation

The deal can be attractive. If it’s a phone, the bad guy may be trying to sell it before it’s reported stolen. When a phone is reported stolen, carriers will block the device, turning it into a very expensive paperweight. If you unknowingly buy a stolen phone, it will arrive as promised, but then you can’t activate it. When you call your carrier for help, you learn the device is stolen and “blacklisted.”

Another risk on the secondary market is buying a phone that’s not paid off by the original owner. If the phone is “under contract,” it means the original owner still owes money on the phone. Carriers may not allow you to use the phone until it’s paid for – and you can’t do it. Only the original owner can pay off the initial contract. And it’s unlikely he or she will do that for you after you bought it on the secondary market.

AT&T customers can check to see if a phone is stolen here. To see if a device is still under contract or other financial obligations, visit this site. You will need the International Mobile Equipment Identity, or IMEI number. (see below for more information)

The best way to buy a phone is through a carrier or authorized retailer. AT&T offers used and refurbished phones on our website. With many secondary market sales, purchases are final. So if there is a problem with the device, you may not be able to get your money back, unlike buying from a carrier or authorized retailer.

If you don’t go through a carrier, here are a few simple and smart tips to help make sure the device you buy is not stolen and will work on your carrier’s network.

  • Buy from a reputable venue or seller. Even if using one of the well-known online sales sites, make sure to review the site’s policies and safeguards, including return policies, to better protect buyers from scams.
  • Listings, no matter the site, should feature some basic information about the device. Original carrier, color, model number, storage capacity, condition and an original proof of purchase should all be provided. The listing should include a photo of the actual device, not an official product shot of that phone model.
  • Ask the seller for the International Mobile Equipment Identity, or IMEI, number or photos of the device displaying its unique IMEI number from the settings screen. Every phone has a unique number and new phones have a 15-digit IMEI. Cell phone carriers keep a record of IMEI numbers activated on their network. The company can disable phones reported stolen, making the device unusable even if the SIM card is changed. Check the IMEI here. If the seller is unwilling to share this info, that's a red flag the device maybe stolen or under contract.

When it comes to buying other things, like connection services or data plans, ones you buy from a nonauthorized retailer may work for a while. But if they’re stolen or unauthorized, they can suddenly be turned off with little or no warning and you lose service. To make their offer really attractive, they may promise to give you more products and services than the company providing connectivity actually offers. These “too good to be true” deals are just to get your money. And when they are discovered, you lose your services because the provider cuts off the nonauthorized retailer.

To protect yourself, verify that you are buying services from an authorized retailer. To check this, you can call customer service for the carrier they claim to work for to find out if the offer or service they are selling is legitimate. Be sure to use a number from a confirmed, secure source or website, not one the retailer gives you.

More Information

If you do purchase from a secondary market source, be sure to notify your carrier so they can update their information. If your carrier is not aware of a device change, it could lead to other hiccups affecting your use of the device. And remember, AT&T has made it easy to validate a device’s IMEI number by visiting Bring your own device to AT&T.