How to identify a stolen iPhone

“If it’s too good to be true then it probably is.” Anon

Apple, iOS, iPhone
Martin Abegglen

So you’ve come across a second hand iPhone at a bargain price, but how can you tell if it’s a stolen device?

Find it

A few years ago iPhone thefts became such a big problem Apple introduced Find My iPhone and a range of other features designed to make iPhones less attractive targets for thieves. This seems to have worked, most of the time.

Every iOS user should enable ‘Find my iPhone’ on their device. Not only can this sometimes help you track down a lost or stolen phone, but it also enables you to wipe confidential data and brick your lost device to prevent others using it. You enable the feature in Settings>iCloud>Find My iPhone.

When Find My iPhone is enabled on your device, your Apple ID is securely stored on Apple’s activation servers and linked to that device.

If your iPhone is lost or stolen while Find My iPhone is active on the device, then you can not only trace the device, but other people will be less able to make full use of it. That’s because your Apple ID will be required in order to erase, reactivate and use, or turn off Find my iPhone on the device.

Check It

When you are thinking about buying a second-hand iPhone you should turn it on and slide to unlock the phone – you should be taken directly to the device set-up process. If you are not, or if during device set-up the passcode lock screen or Home screen appears and/or you are asked for another person’s Apple ID then the smart device is still linked to another person’s account.

You should ask the seller to completely erase the device by entering the Apple ID and going to Settings>General>Reset>Erase All Content and Settings. If they cannot then do not buy the device.

Unfortunately hardware security is not always foolproof. Hackers sometimes find ways to bypass activation lock on iOS devices, enabling them to make the device work just well enough to sell to unwary people.

Fortunately there’s another way to check.


Every iPhone has an IMEI number, a kind of serial number. IMEI stands for International Mobile Station Equipment Identity. These unique numbers are assigned to each device when manufactured.

The IMEI number is important: it is used by mobile service providers to authorize your phone when on their network, and also enables your device to be tracked, blocked or remotely unlocked. You’ll also use this number if you contact Apple Support.

How to find the IMEI number on your iPhone:

  • Dial *#06# and the number will appear on screen.
  • In Settings>General>About.
  • On the barcode label of your device’s packaging
  • You can also find the number using iTunes
  • The number is also printed on the packaging your device shipped in.

Check the IMEI

Apple offers a helpful online tool at When you are thinking about purchasing a second hand iPhone you should get the IMEI number of the phone you’re looking at and enter it into Apple’s online checker. This will tell you if the device is already associated with another person’s iCloud account. If it is then you’ll be unable to use the device properly and if the person selling you the iPhone is not able to remove the device from this other Apple ID account, then don’t buy it from them.

After all, legitimate sellers will know that when you sell or give away an iOS device you should always sign out of iCloud and erase all content and settings in Settings>General>Reset>Erase All Content and Settings before you do.

I hope this advice helps you avoid being ripped-off.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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