Used mobile phone - will I also acquire the old owner's history?
December 27, 2016 4:50 PM   Subscribe

I am thinking about buying a used mobile phone. Will the previous user's browsing/texting history come back to haunt me?

I would like to purchase a used mobile phone, primarily for environmental reasons (i.e. one less phone in the landfill).
While I need to consider whether the phone itself hasn't been stolen, I am also wondering if I need to consider the old user's browsing/texting history.

For example, if the old owner was involved in internet browsing/text communications related to illegal activity, could I technically be implicated as the owner of the same phone?

I am thinking that the IMEI number would be tracked and then would get traced back to me.

Is this actually a possibility and if so, does it make sense to forego a used phone and get a new one?

posted by bitteroldman to Shopping (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If cops/whatever are at the point of tracing IMEI's, they'd also be looking at what SIM was used, who that SIM was registered to, phone location at relevant times, etc. So they would have to be doing an astoundingly bad job for all that to lead them to seriously consider you as the person of interest.
I'd do a factory reset, and format any SD card the phone might come with. If I was feeling particularly paranoid, I might use something like Root-Checker (assuming Android). A rooted phone makes the chances of something devious being on there much higher.
posted by quinndexter at 5:23 PM on December 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Reset the phone. Besides, it's more polite.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:03 PM on December 27, 2016

The unsavory stuff you're interested in wiping comes in two forms:
  • Phone service stuff, like call history, text message history (not the actual messages but who sent you what and when), and what tower you were connected to at various times. This info is stored locally but your carrier may also keep a copy for some period of time, keyed on the phone number and/or IMEI (more likely the IMEI for tower data, phone number for call history and SMS). These will be mostly addressed by changing the phone's number, and if anything is keyed by IMEI, it is easy to demonstrate when that phone started registering using the new number, indicating a change in ownership.
  • Application stuff, like Google location history, iMessage or Facebook Messenger or Hangouts or Snapchat or Instagram or WhatsApp. This is all keyed on various app's accounts (or a system-wide Apple or Google account) and will be wiped with a factory reset. Once your device is no longer registered on the previous user's accounts you won't get anything more of his on your phone.

posted by kindall at 6:12 PM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've bought used phones for my family for years using swappa. They've all come already wiped and I've had zero problems because of their used status.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:08 PM on December 27, 2016

Seconding Swappa--they check/guarantee that the phones purchased through them are not stolen and do not have outstanding bills, which can prevent a phone from being activated.

The situation you're describing seems unlikely, and if it somehow did happen, if you purchase the phone online like that you would have a clear record of having purchased the phone on a specific date (after any criminal activity took place), from a specific traceable person.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:58 PM on December 27, 2016

thanks all, for the advice. First thing I'll do is factory-reset the phone should I go this route.

It's true that I would have a record of the purchase and the phone companies would have clear proof of when I started to use the phone, but super-paranoid me us just assuming the worst!

thanks again!
posted by bitteroldman at 4:59 AM on December 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

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