Used Phones--The Deals and the Duds

Illustration: Marc Rosenthal
My contract with Cingular is drawing to a close and my Treo 650 is feeling long in the tooth, so I've been prowling the shopping pages on Cingular.com. Lately, nestled between the GoPhones and the PDA/smart phones, I've noticed a new category: refurbished phones.

Now, I'm the type of person who's willing to pay for the latest and greatest when I get a new phone. But looking over Cingular's list of refurbished handsets made me wonder. What exactly are refurbished phones? Who sells them? Are they really a good bargain? And in an era when carriers routinely offer great deals on new phones, when does it make sense to consider a refurbished model?

It turns out that Cingular's modest refurbished-phone program (only 14 models of phone were available) is just the tip of the iceberg: The used-phone business is booming, which, if you think about it, isn't surprising. "The refurbished-phone market growth is mirroring the growth in recycling programs for old phones," says Mike Newman, vice president at ReCellular, a phone recycling business. "People are returning their old phones instead of just throwing them in the trash."

Buyer's-Remorse Phones

In the case of a major wireless carrier such as Cingular, people are returning new cell phones, too. Cingular spokesperson Kelleigh Beal explains that customers who purchase a new phone have 30 days to return it, no questions asked. If a phone has been used, even once, and it is returned during this 30-day period, it can't be resold as new.

When this happens, Cingular removes all data from the phone, repairs any damage (which can include replacing the case or display), and runs a series of tests to make sure it works like new, Beal wrote in response to my e-mail queries. "These are high-quality phones," she noted. "They are a great deal to customers, however, because they are discounted." One key difference with a refurbished model (and this is true wherever you buy it) is that warranty protection typically lasts only 90 days, if it's offered at all. Most new handsets carry a one-year warranty.

With some refurbished models, you get the best deal only if you sign up for a contract, as with any new phone. For example, Cingular at this writing is offering refurbished Treo 650 units for $100 if you commit to a two-year contract--these discontinued phones still cost $400 if bought without a contract. The $100 price may not seem like such a bargain, since you can find the same handset sold used by individuals on eBay for $200 or less, no contract required (again, at this February writing). On the other hand, most used handsets on eBay are sold as is--you don't get a single day of warranty protection.

Cingular sells a new LG CU500--a flip phone that supports the high-speed HSDPA network--for $150 with a two-year contract (a $50 mail-in rebate brings it down to $100); a refurbished model is $50 with a two-year contract, no mail rebate required (or available).

But the most inexpensive refurbs on Cingular's site are for the carrier's GoPhone prepaid services. In fact, refurbished GoPhone handsets all cost $30 (after instant online discounts). Of course, these phones are pretty inexpensive to begin with: Cingular's GoPhone handset page, for example, offers a refurbished Nokia 6030 for $30--right next to the $70 new version.

My repeated queries over several weeks to the other major national carriers--Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon--about refurbished phones went unanswered: If they sell them, it's not obvious from their Web sites. Cingular's Beal says that the carrier has been selling refurbished models for at least a year and a half, though it only recently began promoting them as a category on its Web site. Once you look around, however, you'll find plenty of places to buy refurbished phones.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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