Police urge caution with online smartphone sales


Thousands of people buy smart phones online, but they may be ending up with phones that have been lost or even stolen.

Kelly Mitchell of Indianapolis is proud of her 12-year-old daughter. She saved up enough money to get the smartphone of her dreams. Her daughter has always wanted a white iPhone 4.

"My daughter wants to keep in contact with her friends," Mitchell said.

The mother and daughter started surfing the Internet and found an iPhone 4 on Craigslist for a price the 12-year-old could actually afford. Kelly has used Craigslist in the past with much success, so she and her daughter responded to the ad.

"I called the guy and he said he still had it and we met that same day," Mitchell recalled.

Kelly and her daughter met the man who posted the Craigslist advertisement at a local restaurant. The money used to buy it was hard-earned by her daughter, who babysat and completed chores for family members. But that was just some of the money she saved up.

"I was so proud of my daughter. She did things for my mom to earn money, and other family members. When her birthday came up in October, she wanted money for her birthday instead of presents," Mitchell said.

But as Kelly and her daughter found out, there's a risk when you buy anything online, especially smartphones.

IMPD Sgt. Eric Eads is an expert at spotting online scams. He works as a detective in the department's fraud unit and warns consumers to do their homework before they buy.

Investigating a smartphone is as simple as making a telephone call, in most cases.

"Get that serial number and then you call the cell phone company that it is attached to - Verizon, AT&T - and give them the serial number and they can tell you if the phone is stolen or not," Eads said.

Mitchell and her daughter waited several days to get her recent purchase registered in her name, but that didn't keep the 12-year-old from immediately downloading her favorite pictures of her family and friends.

"About a week later is when we tried to switch her number over and that's when we went into Verizon and that's when we learned it was stolen," Mitchell said. "I was very mad and she instantly started crying and getting upset."

It turns out people buying stolen cell phones online is very common.

"We have a large percentage of phones that are stolen and resold in this area and in other cities too," Eads said.

The detective also told Eyewitness News some locally stolen phones are packed up and shipped overseas.

In the case involving the smartphone Kelly and her daughter purchased, it actually belonged to Ben Davis High School student Regina Wright. The cell phone was stolen at school from one of her classrooms. Wright first thought some of her friends were playing a joke on her when her phone disappeared from her desk.

But then some classmates convinced her it was really stolen.

"Somebody took it and sold it. I don't really know why somebody would do something like that anyway in the first place," said Regina. "I guess money is money."

Wright says her family reported it stolen right away to their carrier. In turn, the carrier entered the cell phone's IMEI number into a database of lost or stolen smartphones. But that's just the first step for victims of cell phone thefts. Victims should also call their local law enforcement agency to file a police report.

"If you get a stolen cell phone and you purchase it and find out it's stolen from the carrier, you need to make a police report," Eads said.

Police say that will keep you in the clear from investigations centered around receiving stolen property. It is against the law to possess and/or sell property that is known to be stolen.

Although the 12-year-old's mother was heartbroken, her daughter saved her hard-earned babysitting money only to end up buying a stolen smartphone. They eventually located Regina Wright to return the iPhone 4 to its rightful owner.

"I just did not feel right having a stolen phone, knowing it belonged to someone else," Kelly said. "We chalked this up to just be a hard lesson to learn for my daughter that I think will stick with her for the rest of her life."

But doing the right thing paid off.

The Mitchells got a telephone call Wednesday afternoon from the man who sold her daughter the cell phone from Craigslist. She says he agreed to refund them the $187 because he did not know the cell phone was stolen. But in most cases like this, police say the buyer never recoups their money.

Before you buy a used smartphone, always check the IMEI number by calling the carrier's toll free customer service telephone number. You can also go online and check the IMEI Number for free.

Red flags in online smartphone sales

  • Multiple listings for used smartphones
  • Seller requesting payment by Western Union-type companies
  • Seller unwilling to share IMEI information prior to purchase
  • Seller unwilling to share history of smartphone
  • Smartphones with screens that can't be unlocked