New iCloud activation lock tool checks if an old iPhone is stolen.

Here’s How to Check if a Second-Hand iPhone Is Stolen

Here’s How to Check if a Second-Hand iPhone Is Stolen

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 2 2014 2:07 PM

New iCloud Tool Lets You Check if a Second-Hand iPhone Is Stolen

iphone
My phone's activation lock is on.

Screencap of iCloud

There are lots of different initiatives on both the policy and manufacturing sides to reduce smartphone theft using kill switches and device tracking. But it’s still pretty easy to swipe a phone and sell it online. If you’re in the market for a used phone that turns out to be stolen, the risk is that security features will kick in and the real owner will remotely lock down the device.

To try to reduce this problem, Apple just released a new iCloud tool that lets you use a device’s serial number or IMEI to check the status of its activation lock. If the lock is on for a device you want to buy, you can get information from the tool about how to take off the old account with the seller’s permission (assuming the seller is the rightful owner). And if the seller says he can’t give you permission, he’s probably not the real owner.

The tool will also indicate if something even more devious is going on. If an iPhone is running software to keep it from trying to authenticate with Apple’s servers—which would tip Apple off that something is wrong—the tool will detect it and alert you. This is useful because phones that are set up this way still look like they function normally, but can’t actually connect to a cell network.

If you’re the rightful owner of a gadget that you want to resell, you can use the tool to check your device's status and get instructions for disabling your activation lock (the screencap above shows that my smartphone's activation lock is on).

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The tool won’t reduce rampant smartphone theft, but it’ll help protect you if you’re in the market for a used device.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.