Phone With Bad ESN? You’re 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 conditon 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 (now 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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About Richard

Richard is a professional web developer and business consultant. He opened his first web hosting company at the age of 13 out of his bedroom on an ISDN connection and hasn't looked back since. Richard currently resides in sunny Florida.

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17 Responses to “Phone With Bad ESN? You’re Screwed!”

  1. Rose

    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

    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

    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

    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!

    • Richard

      That’s what it sounds like. Straight Talk doesn’t do rebates like that or anything to my knowledge which requires removal of the UPC on the box. If the phone wasn’t scanned it was stolen, period. Otherwise it would have been previously activated by the owner. Hopefully you didn’t pay too much for that paperweight!



    • Richard Ward

      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. BL

    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

      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.).

    • Windozesuk

      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. funnyboy243

    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.

    • ims1kc

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

      • qkiller

        to use a ‘good’ esn, the phones must be cloned. This is the ONLY way to get on certain cdma carriers, or if the phone has a bad esn… Cloning phones is a legal gray area and may be illegal depending on what your motives are. If you are cloning a phone only to use 1 phone you own on a service you pay for, only to leave the ‘donor’ to rot in a drawer or be destroyed, and you are not trying to defraud or scam anyone, then it is not illegal. The esn is actually based off the meid. Both esn and meid must be zero’d before a change can be made to the meid. Every phone is a bit different when it comes to making read/writable the area of memory containing the meid/esn. qpst, qxdm, cdma workshop, and google are your friends

  8. Peter Yang

    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

      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.

  9. Michell

    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.