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Bad ESN on Your Phone? You Are Screwed


I recently purchased an HTC Touch smartphone from an eBay seller to replace my BlackBerry Curve. The seller had 100% positive feedback and had good feedback on similar phone sales in the past. I figured I couldn’t go wrong and started bidding. After communicating with the seller, I pushed ahead with taking his “Buy It Now” price of $199 + S/H which was one of the cheaper auctions on at that time, but certainly not the lowest price. He confirmed with me before I won the auction that the ESN was clear and the phone was only 4 months old.

I paid for overnight shipping and what arrived was a nightmare.

The phone came in great condition with a screen protector, nice holster, and a house charger. Phone was almost fully charged when I powered it on and everything looked great — it was even upgraded with the latest version of Windows Mobile. If this phone was used for more than 4 months I’d be surprised.

I called Alltel/Verizon and went to activate it. “We’re sorry but the account this phone is on has an outstanding balance.” What the hell? It appears this guy got the phone discounts and bailed on his contract. Not only is it on someone else’s account but that account has been closed due to unpaid bills. Just great! Usually when someone defaults on a wireless contract it’s not over some small amount like $20. I figured he probably owed hundreds of dollars but still asked the rep. if I could pay whatever balance that’s owed. Nope. I can’t pay it, find out how much it is, or anything. Only the account holder can call in and I can’t even get their name to see if that’s my eBay seller.

I got on the hook with the seller on eBay and went as far as threating small claims court. I was furious and without a phone. He ended up settling on a partial refund which was $50 short of what I paid. After picking through his auction with a fine tooth comb, it turns out while the phone is only 4 months old, he never claims it can be activated and guarantees absolutely nothing. Shady business considering that this phone with a bad ESN would’ve fetched about $50 instead of $200.

Now, there are ways to activate this phone — by “flashing” or upgrading the phone’s software to another carrier, such as Sprint or possibly hack it up to work on some pre-paid deal. You could even change the phone’s ESN to a different phone and put it back on the carrier but that’s highly illegal and against FCC rules since 1998.

The seller hasn’t said anything since I accepted his partial refund, but he’s sure as hell not getting his paper weight back. I’m going to keep it around — probably sell it for parts and try to recover the $50 I’m out of. On a positive note I bought another, identical HTC Touch from a different seller, in the same almost new condition with an ESN I verified with Alltel as clear to activate. FedEx should be delivering my new phone in the next 2-3 days. Lesson learned here — if for any reason the seller of your next cell phone is unable to provide you with the internal details you need, such as the ESN or serial number, or any identifying information: fuck ‘em or else you’ll end up fucking yourself.

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14 Responses to Bad ESN on Your Phone? You Are Screwed

  1. Rose October 17, 2013 at 4:55 PM #

    I just won a bid for an iPhone 4 on ebay. Did not see that it has bad ESN. Havent paid it yet. Is there a way to retract my bid?

  2. Doug June 14, 2013 at 4:23 AM #

    I’m thinking of purchasing an Unlocked Ipod 4s, Motorola Droid X or Motorola Triumph from eBay but I fear getting screwed. What are the telltale signs besides a bad ESN or cutout bar codes that the phone(s) are stolen or have outstanding accounts attached to them?

    I want to be able to use the unlocked phone on Straighttalk or flash to Straighttalk if I said that correctly.

  3. Victoria April 6, 2013 at 11:04 PM #

    Hi, i just made an offer for an iphone on craigslist aand the add said it had “bad esn”. I had no idea what that was so i googled it. From what im seeing here im basically just going to recieve an ipod because i cant use it? The current carrier of the phone is sprint, but i have tmobile so i was going to get it unlocked. Should the esn thing make a difference?

  4. maria June 22, 2012 at 1:27 PM #

    I purchased a brand new Straight Talk Samsung T401g from Ebay. When I got it, yep it was new, but the bar codes where cut off the package???…. when I called straight Talk to set up the phone and get it activated, the phone couldn’t be activated, because they stated, “it had never been scanned.” Told me, I had to take it to Walmart and have it scanned??? I’m guessing, because it was stolen.

    Am I stuck with a worthless phone, with no way of activating it? Thank you!

  5. BRINK_ANGEL April 22, 2012 at 10:53 AM #


    • Richard Ward April 23, 2012 at 9:09 PM #

      Even when a phone is shut off (battery still inserted) the phone can be located if it is stolen or if they have a warrant to go after you. Also, depending on your State laws they could get a warrant-less GPS location on the device. Your best bet is to turn the phone in to your local police station. As the saying goes: possession is 9/10 of the law. If you have a possibly stolen phone then you have possibly stolen it. See where I’m getting at? Sorry to smash your dreams of getting a cool $200-$300 from it on Craigslist. That might land you in jail!

  6. Windozesuk April 16, 2012 at 2:38 PM #

    What was the phone you purchased? You might be able to have it flashed to boost or cricket (I don’t think a MetroPCS phone from NY to Boston will work though, MetroPCS has different network there). I would contact or search for someone in your area that can flash to boost or cricket or possibly right back to MetroPCS.

  7. BL April 11, 2012 at 6:55 AM #

    Okay … now I’m scared (and I haven’t been that since I was 5! :) Anyway, I just purchased a phone on EBay with a “Bad ESN”. (I didn’t see this disclaimer before I bought it. My bad!). Nonetheless, it is on it’s way here. What I want to know is this (after reading the blogs above) – I have Metro PCS service and I want the phone to have my telephone number. Based on this info — do I have anything to worry about? Does the camera and Apps run and can I save/retrieve what I’ve taken or applied? Please tell me the answer is YES!!

    • Richard Ward April 12, 2012 at 9:10 PM #

      If the phone is MetroPCS-branded with a bad ESN, you won’t be able to activate it on your MetroPCS service. It’s a good paperweight or you can attempt to flash it to another carrier but I doubt it’d be worth it. Everything on the phone will work except you might not be able to activate it (meaning you’re limited to accessing the net via Wi-Fi, no calls, no phone number, etc.).

  8. ims1kc May 4, 2011 at 2:52 PM #

    how do you use the old (good) esn to activate your new phone with (bad) esn?

  9. funnyboy243 March 18, 2011 at 10:26 PM #

    Changing the ESN is technically not illegal if you only use it to be able to activate the phone by using an ESN of an old, deactivated phone you already own. It’s only illegal if you use it to steal another person’s ESN and use their minutes.

  10. Peter Yang March 16, 2011 at 3:17 PM #

    Thank you for the warning. Another reason why I prefer the GSM phone with Sim Cards. You’re much safer buying a used GSM phone.

    • Tanjim February 4, 2014 at 9:12 PM #

      GSM Phones can be locked too! They have an IMEI number, and if for some reason it has been reported stolen or lost, the phone would be flagged. And well, if you buy it through Ebay, just confirm first if it has a clean ESN or not, and then file a claim with Ebay. You would surely get your money back.

  11. Michell December 19, 2010 at 2:28 PM #

    Did you ever figure out what to do? I just got one of these bogus deals on craigslist so I don’t have paypal or ebay to fight through, All I have is his phone number in which I am sure he is going to change in a day or so.

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