How to Check if a Smartphone is Lost, Stolen, or Still Attached to an Account

phone-missing

Hopefully you’ve never been in this situation: you’ve met someone through Craigslist and bought an iPhone only to find out that it is not clear for activation with Sprint/Verizon/C-Spire. What you thought would be a flashy new cell phone is now your back-up iPod. It’s not only the CDMA carriers that you have to take precautions before buying though. Both At&t and T-Mobile phones also become blacklisted in several situations.  Here are a few of the most common scenarios:

  • If a phone is purchased on an Equipment Installation Plan (EIP) and the buyer fails to complete payments, the phone will become “block listed” after a period of time.
  • If a phone is bought with a contract with a CDMA carrier such as Sprint, Verizon, C-Spire, Boost Mobile, or Cricket and the buyer defaults on their account, the carrier will not allow him or her to turn around and sell the phone to another paying customer.  This is a common way a mobile phone will have a “Bad ESN”.
  • Phones are being stolen at an increasing rate.  At any point in time, your phone is likely the most valuable item you have in your possession.  With both CDMA and GSM (SIM card) carriers, a phone that is reported stolen is not going to be able to be used ever again.  If your phone is taken, call your carrier’s customer service as soon as possible (contact numbers below).  The major carriers in the USA are following the example of the UK and Japan and building a database for stolen devices so that they can no longer simply be unlocked and used on another carrier.
  • If a phone is reported lost with any CDMA or GSM network, the phone will also be of no use.  Often people will claim that a phone is lost to turn around and sell their old phone (which will be blocked).

 

This is what you need to do before buying  a phone or selling one you aren’t sure about.  Ask the seller for the IMEI of a GSM phone (At&t, T-Mobile) or the MEID of a CDMA phone (Verizon, Sprint, C-Spire).  Get to a customer service rep and tell them you want to make sure the phone is clear for activation.

 

At&t Customer Service: 1-800-331-0500 (keep hitting 0)
Sprint Customer Service: 1-866-866-7509 (Only meet at Sprint locations!  They do not do ESN checks.)
Verizon Customer Service: 1-800-922-0204 (Check online here)
C-Spire Customer Service: 1-855-277-4734  (Only meet at a C-Spire locations! They do not do ESN checks.)
T-Mobile Customer Service: 1-800-866-2453

 

This is not bulletproof, but it is going to protect you and others 99% of the time.
This is far from bulletproof.  Someone can sell you a phone today and report it lost months after the transaction.  They will either be freed from their obligations with the carrier or receive a replacement phone to sell again.  They will have your money along with a brand new phone to scam someone all over again.  Carriers need to reevaluate their insurance policies to limit this kind of fraud.

 

–Update 4/30/2013

We’ve gotten a lot of responses on this post from all across the country, so I will be sure to update it as we learn about the changing policys of major carriers.

Sprint no longer does ESN checks so unless you meet at a Sprint location, you are exposing yourself to risk.

  • There is a national IMEI blacklist database now that is shared between all US carriers, so a stolen phone will no longer simply be unlocked and used on another carrier.  This is a huge victory for all customers in the country.  It is also a victory for the legitimate second-hand sellers who operate ethically, as unethical competition is now declining.
  • Sprint no longer performs “ESN checks” over the phone.  This is likely because they want to increase the sales of new devices.
  • The carriers have given CheckESNfree.com access to the IMEI blacklist, so you may run the IMEI number through the database to make sure you aren’t buying an unusable device.
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