Published on March 28, 2006, by

eBay LogoMy 3-year-old Samsung cell phone was starting to show its age by way of a barely functional volume button, so I decided it was time to upgrade. Sprint has been my provider for about five years and I’m grandfathered into a discontinued $30 plan that gets sweetened every year or two with more minutes thrown in (see the previous What Have You Done For Me Lately? entry). The downside of this no-longer-offered plan is that I’m ineligible for most of the new phone discounts Sprint offers to customers willing to re-up. That’s where our good friend eBay comes in, though. While there are some pitfalls to avoid when buying a phone from a third party, it’s not at all something to fear — and it can be a great deal. I upgraded to a model that was current a year or so ago but is now discontinued and easy to find on eBay. You can do it, too. Just keep these tips in mind:

  • Beware the fine print. There are unscrupulous sellers who rope you in with a seemingly good deal on a brand new phone — with tiny print indicating you’re actually being signed up as a new Sprint/Cingular/FlyByNight customer with a lengthy contract. If you’re really a new cell customer looking for a contract, you’re probably better off dealing with the cell provider directly.
  • Get a phone you know works on your provider. While there is such a thing as an “unlocked” phone that can be made to work on multiple providers, there’s really no need to go that route. Just get a phone that’s previously been used on your provider (ideally within the last year or so) and you should be fine. Be sure to confirm with the seller that the phone has previously been active on your provider’s service — but is not any longer (see below).
  • Make sure it’s free and clear. While you want to know the phone has been used on your provider, you also want to be sure that it was deactivated since then. In other words, you don’t want the hassle of trying to activate a phone that’s still activated on someone else’s plan. Before bidding, confirm with the seller that the phone has been used with your provider but is no longer activated. Also find out whether the phone has ever been reported to the provider as lost or stolen, which could make it unusable.
  • What’s a SIM card? Many providers use SIM cards, which let you move your phone service from your current phone to any other supported phone simply by moving the little plastic SIM card. Sprint uses a different system without SIM cards, so this isn’t always a consideration.
  • Make sure the auction includes what you’ll need. Don’t buy a phone that doesn’t include at least a working battery and the original AC charger. These can both be replaced (also via eBay), but it’s best to get a complete package to start. If the seller is willing to thow in more accessories, all the better.
  • Get anything else you’ll need separately. Even if your phone includes the basics, you may want to also get a car charger, extra battery, etc. Again, eBay sellers will have anything you need — just search on the phone’s model number. And the accessories need not be OEM. I’ve been using knockoff batteries and accessories for my phones for years and haven’t had a dud yet.
  • Don’t get charged for saving a company money. Sprint and others try to charge a fee every time you activate a new phone whether you got it from them or not. Customer service reps are generally allowed to waive the fee, though. If you see an activation charge on your next bill, call them up and remind them that you just saved them a ton of money by obtaining a replacement phone yourself.