How to stop Apple’s Activation Lock from ruining the holidays

If you are buying a used iPhone or other iOS device, make sure you understand Activation Lock and how to remove the device from the previous owner’s account.

apple iphone 5s

I am frequently asked about activating used iPhones -- so many times, in fact, that I almost have both the question and answer memorized. The query usually goes something like this: “I bought a used iPhone, but I can’t activate it because it is still connected to the previous owner’s account. What can I do?”

Apple introduced a security measure called Activation Lock to iOS devices a few years ago. This includes iPhones, iPads and iPods, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll just use “iPhones” for the remainder of this article. Unfortunately, many people new to the Apple ecosystem aren’t familiar with Activation Lock, and learning about it is sometimes a tough lesson.

The feature was added to prevent activation of lost or stolen iOS devices. This is a laudable goal, but people who are just getting their first iOS product may never have heard of it before, and as a result have no clue that it is something that they should check before parting with their money.

Fortunately, Apple has a tool that makes it easy for buyers to make sure that Activation Lock has been disabled on the iPhone they are considering buying. Just go to Apple's Activation Lock page and enter the IMEI or serial number of the iPhone in question -- then Apple will tell you its Activation Lock status. Be sure to check the status before you hand over payment.

It’s not only purchasers of used iPhones that often don’t understand the Activation Lock feature. Original owners may not be aware that they need to remove their old iPhone from their Apple account before they sell it. If they didn’t do this, it can still be corrected with most honest sellers. In this situation, you need to contact the original owner and have them remove the iPhone you purchased from their account. Note: you will either have to get the iPhone back in their hands or they will have to trust you with their password, which is less likely to happen. Macworld UK has a step by step guide on how to remove the old Apple ID if you can reach the seller.

A more serious problem can be iPhones brought from unknown or disreputable sources, including strangers listing devices for sale on Craigslist. There are many honest people selling items on Craigslist, but there is also a less honest minority that offers working iPhones for sale at prices that seem too good to be true. The sad truth is that these deals are not good at all, and sometimes may even be an effort to unload stolen iPhones on unsuspecting buyers.

If you have the misfortune to buy a used iPhone that has not been removed from the owner’s account and the seller can no longer be contacted, I’m afraid that you are out of luck. This is not what anyone wants to hear after they have spent their hard-earned money on an expensive Apple product. Hopefully, word is slowly getting out that this is an issue and buyers will be more cautious about purchases.

A used iPhone can make a great gift as long as you avoid this potential pitfall, and the easiest way to solve this problem is to avoid it all together. Only purchase a used iPhone from a reputable seller or someone you know and trust. If you are going to risk buying an iPhone from a stranger, be sure to use Apple’s Activation Lock website to make certain that it is not still locked to someone else’s account.

Otherwise, you may well end up with a beautiful, high-tech paperweight.

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