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5 Keys to Identify a Stolen iPad or iPhone

Ever have one of those moments where you picked up a phone on the cheap, and you suspected that just maybe it might not be entirely legit? What about those of you who maybe ducked into the corner pawnbroker to pick up an iPad Air that was just unbelievably priced? Well… wonder no more. Apple has released a new tool that will let you see if the iPhone or iPad you’re purchasing is a legit device, or is stolen (well, most of the time anyway).

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The tool works on a feature released with iOS 7 for devices that use the Find My iPhone setting. It’s called Activation Lock, and lets the owner of a lost device remotely lock it. However, that lock is limited to iCloud services. The device can still be used, but much of the core apple functionality won’t work, so what’s the point of having an Apple device? Of course, some users had problems where they lost or forgot their iCloud details, and then were unable to get back into their locked iPhones. As we all know, Apple isn’t lately being recognized for their bug free releases, so it’s no surprise that Activation Lock wasn’t without issues.

The thing is, like the imaginary Apple BendGate lunacy, it gets blown way out of proportion. So, what do you need to know before you enable the service, or use the new tool to see if you’re about to buy a stolen device? Here are five things you need to know:

1) What is Activation Lock? Well, it’s a feature that locks out iCloud services with that particular iPhone. For some users, like those Jailbreaking their iPhones, that’s probably not such an issue, but for everyone who does use iCloud services, it’s a problem. Services like iMessage, FaceTime, and Air Drop won’t work, and can’t ever be enabled. Of course, your personal photos also won’t be exposed to the world, but that’s really only an issue if you’re famous and not that tech savvy.

2) How does Activation Lock work? As mentioned above, it locks you out of iCloud services. It works by registering the phone’s IMIE or Serial Number with iCloud, when the device is first registered to the service. Then, it blocks or locks out that device if the correct iCloud details aren’t provided to log in and properly authenticate the iPhone or iPad.

3) Why should you be worried about Activation Lock? Well, if you purchase a used iPad or iPhone from someone, and they have not either removed the device from their iCloud account, or provided you the access to be able to move it to your own account, you can be locked out. That means no access to the basic ecosystem that makes iOS devices attractive to so many people. Put another way, if you purchase an iPhone from someone, they could do something shady, like ransom out those details to you in exchange for an anonymous payment (Amazon or PayPal Gift Cards, Bitcoins… you get the idea). Then you either have an iOS device that’s more or less unusable, or you have one that you’ll not easily be able to honestly resell.

4) Is there any workaround to Activation Lock? Sure, there is always a work around, but those work arounds aren’t always immediately available. Worse, they are pretty expensive. We looked at ChronicUnlocks, which provides an iCloud unlock service for iOS 7 devices. They charge about £90 ($150), and won’t unlock a phone if you can’t reasonably establish legit ownership of it. In other words, if they think you stole the phone, they won’t help you. Of course, if you just paid £500 for a £550 iPhone, and think you got a great deal, the extra £90 to unlock it can leave you less than pleased, especially if they refuse to help you. It also doesn’t work on iOS 8 at this time.

5) What can you do to protect yourself? This part is easy. You need to access to the Apple device the person is trying to sell, and you need to visit the iCloud Activation Lock page, where you then enter in the IMEI or Serial Number of the iPhone or iPad. If it shows up as not being locked, then you’ve got nothing to worry about. However, if it shows up as locked, you need to get the owner of that device to unlock it, or transfer the ownership to you through iCloud. If they can’t, or won’t, then don’t buy the device. It’s really that simple. Don’t take chances, and use the new tech. Do that, and you’ll have no unpleasant surprises. Also, you don’t need to log in or provide any personal information when checking the IMEI or Serial Number of an iPad or Phone, so you shouldn’t have to worry about accidentally getting mixed up with thieves. You just put in the information, and immediately get the results.

For those of you wanting to enable the service yourself, all you need to do is log into your iCloud Account, and set it up through Find My iPhone. Just remember to set up a working recovery email account before you do any of those things. That way, you can recover your locked device in the event of any problems, such as a lost password. Also, it’s always a good idea to keep your information at least relatively current. Legitimate owners have locked themselves out with the Account Lock feature, or been unable to transfer devices due to not remembering passwords, or being unable to locate their recovery accounts.

As a final word of caution, if someone is transferring ownership of a device to you, use your own laptop, iPad, or iPhone when you’re doing that. You never know when someone shady has a key logger on their system, and is more interested in your personal details than the device they’re selling you.

By Paul

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