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Apple Tool Checks Whether Used iPhone Is Stolen

Apple's Activation Lock makes it easy to see if used iPhones, iPads, and iPods are stolen.
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On Thursday Apple provided consumers with a new way to protect their wallets. The company published a new iCloud tool that makes it a breeze to see if a used iOS device is on the up-and-up. After all, no one wants to spend good money on a stolen -- and potentially unusable -- iPhone.

Find My iPhone, a popular tool for iOS devices, is a cloud-based service that allows iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch owners to locate their lost or stolen devices. The phone or tablet can be pinpointed on a map and made to ring or vibrate. The owner can also opt to remotely wipe and/or lock the device to protect any personal information.

Find My iPhone now goes one step further and can permanently disable iPhones with an option called Activation Lock. Once Activation Lock is turned on, no one else can boot the phone and register it with Apple. Activation Lock turns an iPhone into a paperweight for everyone except its rightful owner.

[Demand for black-market iPhones in China is tepid at best. Read Smuggled iPhones Not Hot In China.]

iPhones are popular among thieves, so the used iPhone you see on Craigslist or eBay may not be a legit for-sale piece of hardware. The new iCloud feature lets would-be used iPhone buyers check to see if Activation Lock has been initiated on any given device. Apples explains, "Before you purchase an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch from somebody else, make sure that Find My iPhone Activation Lock is turned off and the device is ready for you to use."

Checking is straightforward: Simply enter the device's IMEI number or serial number into the website search tool. (Use these methods to find the IMEI or serial number.) If the seller won't provide either the IMEI or serial number, walk away. If the device is registered as stolen or if Activation Lock is in place, you might even file a report with the police.

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I tested the tool with my old iPhone 5. Sure enough, Apple indicated the device was not stolen and could not be activated by a new owner.

Google and Microsoft offer similar find-my-device services for their respective Android and Windows Phone platforms, but they have yet to add something like Activation Lock. Both companies have made commitments to offer similar functionality at some point but have yet to say when.

The big four wireless network operators have agreed to implement by July 2015 kill switches (which is what Activation Lock is, in effect) for all the devices they sell.

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Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
Astrid Gobardhan, Data Privacy Officer, VFS Global
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing