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Gambling on Used Sprint Phones: Are Users Buying a Brick?

Buyer beware! US consumers who purchase a used phone with the intention of activating it with an independent MVNO that runs over the Sprint network may well be buying a totally useless brick.

That's because Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) changed its device activation procedure to include a so-called "Financial Eligibility Date (FED)" certification on February 15 of this year. (See Sprint Policy Change Spells Trouble for MVNOs.)

What does that mean for consumers? Well, if the phone has any type of credit balance left over from the previous user, the device can't be activated on another carrier, including a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) using the Sprint network.

I couldn't find reliable figures on the size of the used and refurbished smartphone market in the US. A quick look at Amazon, Craigslist or eBay, however, suggests a booming trade in aftermarket devices.

There are no hard and fast numbers on exactly how many used devices are getting snared in the FED check. Forum chatter and talk with MVNOs, however, suggests that devices that used to pass muster are now failing the new Sprint check. This number could be anywhere from around 30% of aftermarket devices to as high as 70%.

I asked Sprint if there is now any way for a customer to be sure that they are getting a phone that can be activated on another carrier network or Sprint MVNO:

    As for aftermarket phones, unfortunately, there is no consumer facing validation solution. The MVNOs have the option, however, to implement a validation review for individual customer use. If a customer is purchasing a device from a site other than those operated by Sprint or an MVNO, there is no way to confirm that the financial eligibility has been fulfilled.

Sprint MVNO Ting contradicts this statement somewhat. The indie operator tells me that a potential user can enter the International Mobile Station Equipment Identity (IMEI) number into their checker and find out if the device is able to be activated on the network. You can usually get the IMEI number by dailing *#06# on the phone.

The problem there is that the only way to get that number is to buy the device, so you may have already bought a brick. Resellers aren't keen on giving out ESN and IMEI numbers for Sprint phones but they are keen on charging restocking fees if you have to send the phone back because it won't activate.

That's some catch, right?

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

MattyEvas 3/4/2019 | 6:01:46 AM
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Joe Stanganelli 5/30/2015 | 11:40:18 PM
Re: database? Indeed, manufacturers like Apple are working hard to make the conversation less about carrier and more about device -- their own device.

Apple, in fact, has a patent on software that would allow users to shop for carriers and purchase contracts directly from their phones -- making the choice of carrier issue even more accessible and less problematic for the iPhone consumer.
Joe Stanganelli 5/30/2015 | 11:38:46 PM
consumer protection suit coming? Sounds like the issue will eventually be ripe for a multistate class-action lawsuit brought by multiple states' attorneys general.
nasimson 5/29/2015 | 9:30:50 PM
aftermarket If AT&T and Verizon do what Sprint does, the aftermarket will almost be killed in US. And that would not be a good thing for US consumers. International consumers would be enjoying the same phones as UNLOCKING is easy and common.
DanJones 5/29/2015 | 2:28:32 PM
Re: database? Also this gets to be much more applicable as more phones -- like the iPhone 6 -- have just one model that can be used across multiple operators in the US.
DanJones 5/28/2015 | 5:11:39 PM
database? Seems like it should be easy to start a national database of eligible phones for potential buyers. Carriers have all this data available already. That would be the consumer friendly thing to do, no?
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