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Selling your old iPhone? Here's how to avoid scams

You might need a hand paying for that iPhone X. CNET’s Marguerite Reardon offers advice on how to safely sell your old phone to help pay for the new one.

Looking to get top dollar for your old iPhone to splurge on the new $1,000 iPhone X? Your best bet is to sell your device instead of trading it in.

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But private sales of expensive and easy-to-steal items like iPhones can be risky. We've all heard stories of someone who became a victim of a robbery when a prospective buyer of an old iPhone turned out to be a thief.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer some advice on what you can do to protect yourself when selling your device.

Dear Maggie,

I'm considering trading in my iPhone 7 for the iPhone X. I know I could probably get more money for it if I sell it myself, and I need every dime to help defray the cost. I've sold stuff like furniture and old sports equipment on Craigslist, but I've never sold any electronics. Should I be nervous about selling my phone myself?  Any tips for making the process go more smoothly?

Thanks,
Cashing in

Dear Cashing in,

You are absolutely correct that if you're looking for top dollar for your iPhone 7, selling it directly to a buyer will get you the best price.

iphone-8-plus-46

The iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus went on sale this week. And older iPhones have already dropped in resale value.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Flipsy.com spokesman Brian Morris, whose site lets people comparison shop the best trade-in value for a phone, said the so-called blue book, or private party, value of a phone is always better than what you'd get from a buy-back or trade-in website. And he added that buy-back websites like Gazelle and Nextworth will generally pay about 30 percent more than what a wireless carrier's trade-in program will offer.

The difference between what you can get for your phone on eBay or through an app like Letgo, and what a trade-in site will pay can be substantial. As of Friday, Flipsy valued a 128GB iPhone 7 at about $508 in private party transactions. But the average trade-in site would pay only $391 for the same device, according to the site. This means a wireless carrier's trade-in program might net you only about $273 for the same device.

Looking at those numbers, it's easy to see why you'd want to sell the phone yourself, especially since even the cheapest model of the iPhone X costs $1,000.

But selling the phone yourself can be time consuming and risky. There are the Craigslist flakes who never show up, even after hours spent on emails back and forth negotiating a price. Then there are the criminals. There have been several stories of people who've been robbed while meeting a potential buyer. And some people have paid for iPhones with fake $100 bills made as props for movies and TV productions.

What should you do? Trading in your device with Apple or a reputable trade-in website, retailer or wireless carrier is likely your safest bet. But if you're dead set on getting the most money you can, here are a few tips to keep you from becoming a victim.

Vet the buyer

If you find a buyer on Craigslist, Facebook, eBay or an app like OfferUp or LetGo:

  • Check the buyer's social media profiles.
  • Read buyer ratings to see if he or she has a history of successful transactions.
  • If something doesn't feel right about your interactions, listen to your gut and pass on the offer.

Meet your buyer in a public location -- and be careful

  • Arrange to meet in a busy, well-lit public location. If your police department has a video-monitored "safe zone" for Internet exchanges, use it. You can find locations using the Safe Deal Zone website.
  • Take a friend along to serve as a witness in case something goes wrong.
  • Meet during the day, not at night.

Inspect the money

  • Never let an individual buyer pay with a check, which can be forged or faked, or can bounce.
  • Inspect big bills -- and even 20s -- before you hand over your phone. You don't want to fork over your phone as someone gives you movie money. You can buy a pen that detects counterfeit bills for less than $5 on Amazon.
Now Playing: Watch this: Get the best price for your old phone
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Avoid using PayPal for payment

PayPal is fantastic if you're buying something, but it can be tricky if you're a seller. Services like PayPal tend to favor the buyer in disputes. PayPal also makes it very easy for a buyer to refute a charge. Some unscrupulous people have used this to their advantage.

Here's how a scam could work. Someone buys your device. He or she comes to pick it up in person and then files a complaint saying the buyer never received the item. If you don't have a tracking record and proof of delivery, you can't fight the claim. It's your word against the scammer's. For local sales, always ask for cash. Period.

Even if the item is delivered through UPS, FedEx or the regular mail, buyers can dispute the charge, claiming the product was damaged or never arrived. If you must use PayPal: Make sure you ship only to verified addresses, don't deliver goods in-person (as mentioned above), require a signature for receipt, and clearly explain what you're selling, including any defects or damages (and include photos).

Do your homework and check out all your options

Know what your phone is really worth by comparing trade-in and resale values.

Still unsure? Trade-in sites make their pitch

You will definitely get more money selling your iPhone yourself. But you have to ask yourself if it's really worth it.

"It's important to do some comparison shopping," said Yanyan Ji, senior vice president of marketing at reseller Gazelle. "But don't get caught up only on price."  

She added there are lots of benefits to using a trade-in site. For instance, big sites like Gazelle and Nextworth let you lock in your price for at least 30 days. Gazelle is running a promotion right now to allow you to lock in your quote for 45 days. This is a big deal considering that prices on used devices usually drop quickly after a new device is announced, and they continue to fall right after a device starts shipping. This means every day you spend looking for a buyer for your phone, your device loses value.

One of the biggest reasons people often don't get top dollar for their trade-in is due to a malfunction in the device or a small crack in the it. If your phone is still under warranty, Nextworth CEO David Chen suggests going back to Apple to see if it'll replace your phone with a refurbished one.

"This gives you a great phone to trade in to get the best trade-in value," Chen said.

The bottom line

While I'm a big fan of buying used whenever I can and unloading stuff I don't need anymore on sites like Craigslist or Facebook, the thought of selling a valuable item like an iPhone on my own makes me uneasy. But if Flipsy.com's comparison is accurate and you can really get an extra $100 by selling it yourself, I'd be tempted too. Only you can decide whether the effort and potential risks are worth it.

I'd love to hear from other Ask Maggie readers about their experiences selling their used devices. Do you trade in your devices or sell them directly?

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

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