If you’ve ever considered purchasing a used phone, you’ve probably seen the words “blacklisted IMEI” mentioned in ominous tones everywhere you looked. Yet, the information on the web about blacklisted phones is vague and often conflicting depending on where your look.

We’re here to explain everything you need to know about blacklisted phones.

We’ll start with some background information and the ways you can check if a phone is blacklisted. If you’re the unlucky recipient of a blacklisted phone, we’ll also cover a few options you might have in recovering your money or restoring function to your phone.

What is the IMEI/MEID/ESN Blacklist?

Every mobile device sold with data capabilities has a unique identifier. Which one your phone uses will depend on the network your carrier uses. For the majority of devices, this will be the IMEI or International Mobile Equipment Identifier. If you’re on a CDMA network, such as Sprint or Verizon in the US, you’ll have an ESN or Electronic Serial Number instead. However, in both cases, the identifier works the same.

When you insert your SIM into a device--or with ESNs, turn your device on after adding it to your account--it connects with the network of the carrier associated to the SIM. The carrier checks the IMEI and assigns it to your account. If it’s clear and you have a service contract, the phone can connect. If the phone is blacklisted, it refuses a signal.

This means no SMS, MMS or calling on a mobile network. However, you can still use the device’s Wi-Fi for VOIP calling, installing apps and other common tasks. It’s like having a small tablet with no data service.

Blacklists are maintained by different groups depending on your location.

While most carriers within a region will share blacklisting information, this isn’t always the case across regions. However, it is possible that a device blacklisted in one region may be blacklisted in some or all of the others.

How Does a Phone End Up on the Blacklist?

There are two ways that phones end up on the blacklist.

If a device is reported lost or stolen.
If the owner of the phone fails to pay off any device financing.

While this should help curb mobile phone theft, the rules have created another problem for people in the market for a cheap used phone.

The scam works like this:

  1. The seller puts a phone up for sale online
  2. The buyer asks for the IMEI/ESN
  3. The IMEI/ESN checks out clear
  4. The buyer purchases the phone and uses it with no problems
  5. After the return period passes, the seller calls the carrier and reports the phone lost or stolen
  6. The carrier blacklists the phone
  7. The seller files an insurance claim with their carrier and gets a phone replacement, pocketing the seller’s money
  8. The buyer calls their carrier because their phone doesn’t work and finds out it’s blacklisted
  9. The buyer contacts the seller and is told they are outside the return window

The problem is that the IMEI doesn’t track ownership or sales, just the carrier of the SIMs inserted over the life of the phone. In the end, the seller gets a new phone and can potentially run the same scam until the carrier or insurance provider catches on. The buyer is stuck fighting for their money back or finding a new use for their overpriced iPod Touch.

Where Can I Check if a Phone is Blacklisted?

Checking to see if a phone is blacklisted is simple and free in most cases. To check, you’ll need the IMEI or ESN.

Finding Your IMEI/MEID/ESN

For most GSM phones, you can find the IMEI by typing *#06# into the dialer.

For other phones, you can try one of these methods:

Check the device settings: On Apple devices, tapping Settings > About > IMEI/MEID will display the information. On Android devices, tapping Settings > About Phone > Status will do the same. You might need to scroll to find the information.

Check the back of the phone: One many iPhone models, the IMEI/MEID is listed in small print on the back of the phone.

Check the SIM tray: Some manufacturers print the IMEI/MEID on the tray you insert into the phone’s SIM slot.

Check under the battery: If your phone features a removeable battery, you might find the IMEI/MEID listed on a sticker beneath it.

Check the original packaging: If you held on to the original box to your device, there’s likely a label on the outside that includes your IMEI/MEID.

Checking the Status of your IMEI/MEID/ESN

Now that you have the identifier for your phone, you have two options.

If you prefer to interact with a human, you can call the carrier you plan to use the phone with or stop by one of their local stores.

If you’d prefer something a little quicker, there are several websites you can use to check blacklist status. Leading options include:

Doctor SIM (Global)
Swappa (Global)
Protect Your Data (Canada)

Looking for something a little more comprehensive? CheckMEND offers background checks for phones for a small fee.

Items in their reports include:

  • Blacklisting for major carriers
  • If the phone has been recycled
  • If the phone has been subject to an insurance claim
  • If the phone has been reported lost or stolen
  • If the phone is under any financing

On some of the forums and articles we ran across researching CheckMEND, there were comments that the police use the same service and databases. This means if you check an identifier that is stolen, you might receive a call asking if you know of the whereabouts of the phone. We couldn’t confirm this, so we’ve included it as a note here for those who might find the situation uncomfortable.

Protecting Yourself from Blacklisting Scams

While the blacklisting system has good intentions, it doesn’t do much to protect the buyer. So it’s up to you to exercise caution when buying a used phone to prevent complications. These best practices should find you enjoying your new-to-you phone without worry.

  1. Regardless of where you buy your phone, do not pay cash! Fraudulent sellers are always finding new ways to skirt the rules and rip people off. The best protection you have as a buyer is creating proof of the transaction. For online classifieds, PayPal offers 180 days of protection. Many banks will reverse a fraudulent claim up to one year from the transaction. While neither of these will help get your phone working, they can get your money back.
  2. Always request the IMEI or ESN of the phone you’re planning to buy. If possible, have the seller to provide pictures of the information to ensure it is correct. If you can do this through email, you also establish proof to place a claim if you receive a device with a different IMEI.
  3. Take over the contract with the phone if you can. This is one of the most overlooked options. Some used phone sites--such as Cellswapper and TradeMyCellular--allow sellers to include the rest of their contract with the phone. As part of the sale, you contact the carrier and assume ownership of the phone and contract. This means the seller cannot fraudulently report the phone stolen or lost after you get it.
  4. Use a vendor with a blacklist guarantee. The problem with phone fraud is partly due to the way the blacklisting system works. There is no protection built-in for either the buyer or seller. Due to this, few vendors offer a blacklist guarantee. Orchard for example offers used iPhones with a lifetime guarantee against blacklisting.
  5. Ask questions. Find out everything you can about a phone before exchanging any money. When asking questions, be on the lookout for vague answers or hesitation from the seller. These could be signs of someone looking to scam people.
  6. Know phone values. Research how much a phone is worth before jumping on any deals. If the deal seems to good to be true--and it’s not a family member or friend--it probably is.

What Can I Do if My Phone is Blacklisted?

Unfortunately, the way the laws and blacklist system work, you have little at your disposal if yourself with a blacklisted phone.

  • If you bought the phone from a carrier store, contact your carrier and find out why it was blacklisted. They may offer help with back payments or similar issues.
  • If you purchased the phone from a third-party reseller, check with the site or store to see what protections that have against blacklisted phones.
  • If neither option works, check with the terms of your bank, credit card or payment service. They can walk you through the steps of filing a claim and reversing the charge. Policies differ across providers, but if you’re within 6 months of your purchase date you’re likely to find options.
  • If nothing else works, consider checking with unlock services to see if they’ll unlock a blacklisted phone. If they will, you might find that another carrier will still work. However, as the blacklisting databases continue to share information, this is less likely to work. We have a guide on phone unlocking with list of reputable phone unlockers that might able to help.

Blacklisting is a warranted concern for anyone purchasing a used phone. However, with some precautions and research, it is possible to minimize the risk and save big over the prices at retail stores.

Your Turn

Have any tips for readers looking to avoid buying a blacklisted phone we might have missed? Have you had success getting your own phone off the blacklists? We want to hear about it! Leave us a comment in the box below or reach out on Facebook.

P.S. If you cannot recover your funds or get your phone off the blacklists, you might use it as a VoIP phone, media player or home automation remote control. We outline other popular options in our article on uses for old smartphones.