Inspect the phone carefully
Once you’re able to hold the phone — whether during a physical meetup or after receiving it in the mail — be sure to inspect it for damage. If you’re meeting in person, find a spot with good light, so you can inspect the phone slowly and carefully.
“Obviously, scratches, dents and cracked glass will be evident by handling the phone,” Mr. Edwards said. “Water damage is harder to spot from the outside of the phone, but every phone usually does have one or two moisture indicators — sometimes behind the battery, sometimes in the SIM card tray. That’s one of those things that should be checked once you’ve got the phone in hand.” Before you buy, research to see if there are moisture indicators you can check once you have the device.
In addition, remove any screen protectors applied by the previous owner, which can cover up scratches, and check the camera lens for scratches as well. Plug the device into the wall and make sure it charges reliably. If it has a headphone jack, make sure that works. Pop in your SIM card and make sure it activates properly, and that the phone is usable. In short, do your due diligence.
You’ll also want to turn on the screen and swipe around for a bit. “If an item’s been repaired or refurbished, it may have been a shoddy repair job,” said Mr. Edwards. “That can be sometimes be harder to spot, but give the screen a quick usability test once you’ve got it.”
If you don’t find any damage, perform a factory reset on the phone right away to ensure it isn’t locked to the seller’s iCloud or Google account, which will prevent you from using it. If it resets and you’re able to log in with your account, you’re good to go.
On the other hand, if you find damage that wasn’t indicated in the listing, you can either call off the purchase, negotiate the price down or — if the phone was purchased online — open up a dispute with the seller. Remember, even if you aren’t annoyed by a particular flaw, it could lower the phone’s resale value if you decide to sell it down the line. So it’s usually in your best interest to get a phone in good condition, even if you can get a damaged one for cheaper.
There are never any guarantees with buying used, even if you stick to these best practices. In my experience, though, problems are pretty rare, and for every broken device you might receive, you’ll have many more that work perfectly — and even if you occasionally get fleeced with no recourse, you’ll likely save money in the long run. Just take the right precautions, and you should be prepared for almost any hiccup that comes your way.