Buying a used iPhone on eBay or Craigslist has become a little less scary now, thanks to a new Apple tool that can help budget shoppers spot stolen devices before they buy.
The iCloud webpage, "Check Activation Lock Status," does exactly what it says: It checks whether the registered owner has turned on Activation Lock, a Find My iPhone security tool introduced in iOS 7 that requires the registered owner's Apple ID before it can erase or reactivate an Apple device. Presumably, iPhone owners would shut off this feature before selling to another party.
Stolen Apple gadgets, however, are more likely to have Activation Lock still on. And now, it's easy to check on that status.
The Check Activation Lock Status is extremely simple to use: Just go to the page and type in the unique IMEI or serial number used to identify the device. Although it's available in Settings > General > About on the device, or in iTunes when the iPhone is connected, a shopper may not be able access those areas.
Fortunately, Apple includes that information on the box, which is helpful if you're transacting in person. If not, at least ask the seller for one or both of the numbers, and perhaps some photographic proof that they're legitimate.
See also: A Thief Snatched My iPhone—And I Learned A Lot About Smartphone Crime
Buyers Beware, And Be Savvy
All iPhones for sale—new or used—should sell with Activation Lock turned off. If it's on, a new owner would not be able to set up the phone with a new Apple ID.
But, thanks to some hacks that have surfaced, it's not always that easy to tell the difference.
In May, Apple blog iClarified reported the news of some rough third-party workarounds. One, called doulCi, claimed that it's intended for legitimate purposes (say, if you forgot your login, or changed your password and can't remember the new one). The hack involved adding a line to the "hosts" file, a fairly simple procedure that would let you (or anyone else) bypass the activation lock screen.
It's not a perfect hack, though. Some folks discovered that it hobbled cellular service. Still, it should have been good enough to fool unwitting buyers. If not, apparently renowned iPhone hacker "iH8sn0w" apparently also found another Activation Lock loophole.
See also: How To Get Smart About Smartphone Theft
For now, doulCi's iOS 7 support works for all iPhones prior to the new 6 models, going all the way back to the 3GS, as well as all iPads. The team also has iOS 8 support in the works.
This is likely what prompted Apple to push the "Check Activation Lock Status" tool out to the public. With this, even if the lock's busted on the iPhone itself, Apple's server can still step in and rat out the crook.
Police photo by Scott Davidson. Screenshots by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite.