Prey Labs: How to avoid buying a stolen laptop

Selling Used Laptops

According to our database, about 20% of Prey’s recovered devices were found in the hands of people who had bought them online. The most frequent sites used for these activities turned out to be EBay and Craigslist. It is important to emphasize that none of these sites condone the trading of stolen devices, and because of this reason, they have implemented their own rules and regulations to put an end to the commercialization of misappropriated electronics. Nevertheless, thieves still manage to bypass them, leaving users at their mercy.

We don’t want you to become one of the victims and we are sure you don’t want that either. So, we have gathered an assortment of advice for you to take into account when buying used devices from online classifieds.



1. Ask for the receipt

Whenever you buy an item in the formal market you get a receipt which is the written record that you have bought an item. It is advisable to keep it, especially regarding electronics as it can become proof of ownership.
Consequently, whenever you buy a used device, it is recommended to ask for the device’s receipt. If the seller is able to give you the receipt, then you can be sure that he or she is the legitimate owner of the device or that they acquire the electronic in a good manner. Thieves rarely, if ever, steal the device with the receipt.

2. Ask for a copy of their ID

Identification documents help verifying a person’s information, physical appearance and different facts which prove that the person is who he says he is. Moreover, every identifier is unique and helps distinguish one person from the other. As a result, If you need further proof on the validity of the seller, ask for a photocopy of an ID card. Possible conmen will never agree to that, since it will compromise them in case you go to the police.

3. Ask for the device’s serial number

Serial numbers are like IDs for electronic devices. They are unique for each laptop. Consequently, they can be used to find out whether a device has been reported as stolen. You can do that by contacting your local police of visiting the manufacturers’ website. Most major laptop companies such as Dell have their own database of stolen devices which you can check .

4. Schedule a meeting with the seller beforehand

Chances are, if it’s a serious seller, you will be able to meet with him or her beforehand to make sure that everything is in order with the laptop. This will give you the opportunity to check the device for physical damage, e.g. dead pixels, defunct hardware, that may or may not have been commented on the classified ad.

5. Check for password protection

Always try to check if the laptop you are going to buy is password protected and whether or not, the seller knows the password. If the seller does not know the password of the device, it is possible that it may have been stolen. On the other hand, if he or she knows the access passwords, you can be sure that they did not acquire it from theft.

6. Check the folders for data

While you have access to the device, check the folders for existing data, e.g. pictures, documents, etc. You can even ask for the story behind some pictures or documents. Most likely if it was robbed, the seller will not appear in any of them and will most likely have a dumb explanation as to why. Nevertheless, take into account that people who sell their laptops will make sure to erase all their data, so than nobody will have access their information.

It’s important to clarify that all this criteria will not necessarily be met. For example, the owner might have forgotten to keep the receipt. But if used wisely, it can give you the tools to identify any suspicious behavior.

Finally, if, after much thought and reassurance from following the previous advice, you buy the laptop, it is always a good idea to save some specific documents in case something unforeseeable happens:

  • Make copies of any credit card transactions or money orders from the transaction.
  • Take a snapshot of the Craisglist’s ad so that in case it does turn out to be stolen property, you can back your story with the police.
  • Keep the copy of the seller’s ID if given to you.

It can never be stressed enough that if you doubt ever so slightly, if you have any suspicion that the laptop may have been stolen, do not buy it. As the old saying goes, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Photo: Ahtisham78 (cc)

Fabián Núñez

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Head of Sales and Customer Happiness at @preyproject. I love tech and Asian food. Headbanging since 2002. Overall badass.