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Buying a used or refurbished phone on eBay? Not so fast – CNET

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Having a great phone that can handle gaming, streaming and take lovely photos doesn’t mean spending a fortune on the latest flagships like the iPhone 11 Pro or Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Buying an older phone, used, can save you a bunch of money, but still puts some awesome hardware in your pocket. Even better, it saves a phone from going to landfill, which we can all agree is a good thing.

But there are some key things to keep in mind if you want the best phone for your money and you want to stay safe when you get it. Here then, are our top tips on how to safely buy a great used phone, whether you want an iPhone ($699 at Apple) or Android.

What features do you need?

First, think about what you actually need from a phone, as this will dictate what sort of level you need to be aiming at. If you just want something to handle some casual WhatsApp messages and play Spotify on your commute, you don’t need flagship levels of performance. Something like 2018’s Samsung Galaxy A8 ($499 at Amazon) will likely fit you well.

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Think about what features you really need in a phone. Is having a button-free display really worth splashing the extra cash on a more modern handset?

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

If, however, you’re really into your photography then you may want to spend a bit more on something that’s got a decent camera on the back. In that case, something like an iPhone X ($900 at Boost Mobile) might suit, or a Galaxy S9 ($230 at Back Market). You’ll have to find that balance between the performance you need and the price you’re happy to pay. Newer phones with more modern features will come with a higher price. 

Buy from a trusted source

Not every phone seller has your best interests at heart, so it’s important to be savvy with your shopping. Some places to avoid should be obvious; don’t buy from the guy selling phones on a street corner, for example, but others can be hit and miss.

eBay is a well-known source for buying anything used and there’s a huge selection of phones to be had. Some of these are sold by refurbishing companies that trade solely in buying and selling used handsets. Others are just regular people trying to offload their old devices when they upgrade. The result is that it can sometimes feel like panning for gold, looking for those nuggets you actually want. Check the next section for more tips on buying on eBay.

My best advice though is to go to trusted companies that buy old phones, refurbish them and sell them on. I’ve used MusicMagpie in the UK and had no problems. Its online catalogue is vast, it clearly lists the condition of the phones, every handset is factory reset and you get a 12-month warranty with every purchase. Prices might be a tad higher than you’d find on eBay but the peace of mind more than makes up for it. Gazelle offers a similar service in the US, although we haven’t tested it ourselves so can’t vouch for the overall quality of the service.

Read moreBest cell phone trade-in options for iPhones and Android phones

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MusicMagpie’s product pages make it very easy to see the condition of the exact phone you’re buying.

MusicMagpie/Screenshot by Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Check the details

Whether you’re buying from eBay, Amazon Marketplace or anywhere else, it’s important to pay close attention to what you’re actually getting. Read carefully what the listing says, including any small print that might be hidden further down, in among other details. It may be that phrases like “nonfunctioning” or “battery faulty” are intentionally buried to trick people into buying a phone that no longer works. They’ll also likely explain whether you’re getting the original charging cable, packaging and what sort of nicks and scratches you can expect to see.

Use your common sense here — if a $1,000 iPhone is being sold for only $100, there’s probably something fishy going on. Don’t be the guy who bought a picture of an Xbox One for $735

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Despite having the latest software installed, this Galaxy S6’s last security update was applied in 2018. That means that there are two years of new exploits that this phone is susceptible to.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Make sure it still gets security updates

I’ll make this as clear as possible: Do not buy a phone that no longer gets security updates from its manufacturer. Unsupported phones are open to all kinds of vulnerabilities that can give hackers easy access to every single piece of information on your handset — or even control it completely. Those bank details, those cute pics of your kids, those sexy selfies you sent to your partner — all could be accessed and stolen.

Most Android phone manufacturers tend to support their handsets for two to three years. Apple takes that further, however, supporting even 2015’s iPhone 6S ($128 at Back Market) with the latest iOS 13. 

It’s frustrating that phones aren’t supported for longer, as the hardware remains perfectly capable, but the outdated software makes the phones vulnerable. I recently compared the 2017 Galaxy S8 to the brand-new Moto G Power and while the S8 performed superbly, it’s right on the cusp of being cut off from Samsung’s regular updates, meaning that it won’t be long before it becomes gradually less safe to use. 

Your best bet is to look at phones that came out within the last two years and are therefore likely still receiving security updates. When you find a phone that suits, google the model name and try and find out if it’s still definitely getting updates, and if there’s an indication of how much longer it’ll get them for. Companies aren’t forthcoming with info about when they’re cutting a product loose, but by looking at what other models are still being supported you can make a fair estimate.

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The Galaxy S9, being a newer model than the S8, will likely continue getting security updates for longer.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Galaxy S8 ($205 at Back Market), for example, is still listed on Samsung’s support page as getting updates, but it likely won’t be for much longer. It’s reasonably safe to assume therefore that the S9 (launched a year after the S8) will have at least another year of safe use out of it. Buying a used S9 might cost a little more than a used S8, but it’s an investment that’ll be safer for you in the long run.

Make sure when your phone of choice arrives that you fully factory reset it yourself, and make sure to check for all available software updates before doing anything else.

If you’re keen to save some cash by buying used, make sure to check out our full article on the security advice you need to be aware of. Also see how the old S8 compares to the recent Moto G Power. If you’re not keen on buying used but still don’t want to spend all your savings, take a look at our roundup of the best phones under $200.

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