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Buying a Used Laptop Safely: 5 Things to Look Out for to Avoid Buying a Stolen Laptop

July 28, 2020

8 Min Read

Buying a second-hand laptop can be a great way to save money but it’s important to exercise some caution when deciding what to buy. Aside from the obvious advice of avoid buying a laptop from someone selling it from the trunk of their car in a parking lot, how do you buy a used laptop safely? What should you look for in a good laptop and what are the warning signs that the deal might be a little too good to be true?

The best way to buy a used laptop

One of the best ways to find a good, “new-to-you” laptop is looking for refurbished models direct from the manufacturer, on Amazon, or from a big box store. These are machines that have come back to the company, checked out, cleaned up, and refreshed—and they often come with a warranty too. Often big box electronic stores will have open box, floor models, or returns at great prices. These are machines that are essentially new, but you’re getting a good deal. 

If you can’t find something refurbished you like from the manufacturer or well-known retailer, go to a local computer store that you know and trust and see if they sell secondhand machines. Local stores often take trade ins and refresh them like a refurbished machine. A used machine might not come with the same warranty as a refurbished machine from a manufacturer, but a local company might also be more willing to help you if something goes wrong. 

If you’re unable to find a good deal on a secondhand machine from a retailer and you’re considering an individual seller, know that there are deals to be had this way, but you must be careful. Purchasing a stolen laptop could mean trouble you don’t need.

What to look for when negotiating with a private seller

1.  How does the laptop look? 

The first thing to look at is the machine’s appearance. Does it look beat up? Are there scratches on the case that look like someone pried something off the laptop? You know what a used laptop looks like — little bits of wear and tear are perfectly normal. What you’re looking for is strange damage that the seller can’t explain. If there was a security cable attached and pried (or cut) off, there’s going to be damage that just doesn’t look quite right. This is a good sign you should back away from the sale. 

One other thing to look for is if the case is bulging anywhere. A bulging case is a sign the battery isn’t in good shape. If they seller acknowledges this, you’ll need to replace the battery…you know what you’re getting into. A bulging battery is a fire hazard and can cause the trackpad and keyboard to malfunction. Unless you know what you’re doing, and are willing to spend the extra money to replace the battery, maybe avoid this one.

2.  Does it have the necessary equipment? 

If someone stole a laptop quickly, chances are they might not have snagged the power adapter too. If they don’t have the power cord, and can’t explain why, this is a big red flag. Often when people are selling laptops, they might throw in an extra mouse or a travel bag. This is can be a good or a bad sign. If the bag was stolen from someone’s car, of course they’ll have all the accessories to sell too! Probe a little on why they have these extras to include. Check the bag for identification or other signs it might not have been theirs to begin with. 

Don’t worry so much about the seller not having the original box or install disks (not many machines ship with install disks anymore). If the laptop is more than a few years old chances are the box is long gone and recycled. What you’re looking for is if the machine comes with everything you’d expect someone who has owned it for a while would have.

3.  Does it work? 

Some of us have no problem buying a dead laptop that we figure we can salvage into something workable. But there’s a difference between buying a dead laptop, that say comes up with the blue screen of death or doesn’t boot into OS correctly, and buying a laptop the seller won’t let you turn on before you buy it. Before you buy a used laptop from someone, you should turn it on and make sure everything has been reset to factory settings. There shouldn’t be personal files sitting on the desktop. You shouldn’t see apps like MS Office or Photoshop installed on the machine. 

Even used, you should be getting a machine that is software new. 

Check to see if WiFi works, the speakers work, the trackpad functions correctly (and doesn’t look warped). Also open a text editor on the machine and type a bit. Do all the keys work? Does the keyboard feel wonky? If the seller won’t let you try these core functions, it’s not worth the risk.

4.  What’s the seller like? 

Does the seller seem really nervous? Will they only meet you in a parking lot somewhere? Will they take an e-transfer or only cash? Can you get a receipt with their name and contact information (that matches their ID)? Can the seller tell you about the laptop? Do they know the specs, or at least let you turn it on and check?

If the seller is offering a sweetheart deal on a clearly expensive laptop, it should give you pause. Even if you want to sell something quickly, you still want to get a decent price for the machine. Cutting a deal for a kid who needs a laptop for school is one thing, selling a $3000 laptop for $500 is suspicious. 

If you found the laptop on Facebook marketplace, Kajiji, or Craigslist, check out the seller’s rating and if they seem to be selling a lot of things, like, several bicycles, a bunch of laptops, a few phones. This is your chance to exercise some caution. If something just doesn’t feel right, trust that feeling and walk away. There will always be other laptops to buy.

5.  Be wary of online-only sales 

Buying things online feels like second nature now. And buying a new machine from a manufacturer or reputable online store is not a problem. What gets a little iffy is buying a used machine online. It’s a lot harder to confirm you’re getting the machine you saw in the pictures, or even if someone did a video chat with you. You can’t really check it for all the signs above and you have no recourse if you don’t get what you paid for. 

Be extremely cautious if you’re buying a laptop sight unseen. There far more safer options available.

Consequences of buying a stolen laptop

Because a lot of laptops—those protected by Absolute—have tracking software built in to the firmware, if the laptop is stolen, someone may well come looking for it. The last thing you want is to have the police knocking on your door to get back a stolen laptop which leaves you with no laptop, lost money, and possibly being investigated for possession of stolen property.

Explaining to the police how you bought the laptop won’t be a fun experience. And you’ll have to answer a lot of questions about who you bought it from, when, and why didn’t you notice any of the tell-tale signs the sale might not be on the up and up. Go through reputable dealers or buy refurbished laptops from manufacturers. 

Want to learn more?

Our How-to guide on tracking and recovering laptops pulls together tips and solutions for healthcare, schools, remote workers, and businesses of all sizes. Learn how to keep your laptop—and other devices—safe, secure, and protected with common sense tips, and help from Absolute.

To learn more about how Absolute helps tracks and recovers stolen laptops while providing features that protect your personal information, visit Absolute Home & Office.

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