How to Avoid Online Scams When Selling Your Old iPhone or iPad

Here's how you can spot suspicious signs when selling a gadget and make sure you're not defrauded.

A lot of people right now are selling their old iPhones and iPad minis to trade up to the supersized iPhone 6 models. Unfortunately, I suspect some of them are being scammed out of their devices -- I nearly was.

I'm itching for a 64GB iPhone 6 Plus (Space Gray, please). To partly finance Apple's turkey-platter-sized phablet, I decided to sell my first-generation iPad mini on Amazon. That's where my scamming saga begins.

Within one day of listing the tablet, I received an Amazon email from "Kimberly." She expressed interested in my mini and asked me to send pictures to her personal Yahoo email address.

It seemed like a reasonable request, so I emailed a few pictures to her. She soon replied via her Yahoo email and asked for my Amazon seller name. I was a tad suspicious because she was communicating with me directly instead of going through Amazon's messaging system, but I replied.

A few hours later, I received two emails, one with the subject line "Amazon Order Confirmation" and the other "Payment Confirmation." At a quick glance, the emails looked legitimate.

A follow-up email from "Kimberly" told me something was amiss.

"I am sending this item as a gift to my client and I don't want you to write the content on the package because it is expected to be a surprise gift," she wrote, adding that she wanted me to send the item right away via FedEx to an address in Michigan.

I was suspicious, so I logged into my seller account and discovered the iPad mini was still unsold. I immediately reported the attempted fraud with all pertinent details to Amazon. More than 24 hours later, I've not received any confirmation that Amazon received my notice or is acting upon it.

I'm sharing this story because these scams often work, particularly with people who are new to online selling (I'm not) and desperate to get cash to finance their new iPhones (I am). Had I not given those fairly-convincing Amazon emails a close look, I would have been duped out of an iPad mini, plus FedEx charges.

I'm not picking on Amazon, by the way. I've sold lots of stuff on the site during past years, and this is the first time I've seen a scam like this. I've also sold through eBay, and 99 percent of the time it has been fine -- except for the time years ago when I nearly shipped a laptop to a foreign country before I realized the PayPal funds hadn't cleared. (Guess what? They never cleared.)

If you're planning to sell your iPhone or any gadget yourself, take the following tips into consideration.

1. Always look closely at what is allegedly an official email from Amazon, PayPal, eBay or another entity. If you find misspelled words or awkward grammar, the email is very likely a fake.

2. If you've sold before, compare previous "your item just sold" emails to the ones you just received. It only took one look at my last Amazon sales email notification to know I was dealing with a swindler this time. Check out the excerpts below of the scam email and a similar, legitimate email I received from Amazon back in May. Notice the grammatical error in the second sentence ("Fund in your Amazon Payments account is deposited...").

3. Look at the sender's email address. In this situation, the alleged Amazon emails, upon closer inspection, were not from an email address.

4. Before taking action, verify the transaction by logging into your account at the site you're selling through.

5. If someone contacts you outside of the official Amazon, eBay or other seller messaging system, be wary. There's rarely a good reason for this.

6. If you see some odd explanation for why they want the item shipped as soon as possible, it's probably a hoax.

7. If you want to avoid the risk of a scam altogether, just sell your gadget to Gazelle, USell or another similar company. You might not make as much money as selling it yourself, but you don't have to worry about fraud. In my experience, selling to Gazelle is extremely easy. For more details on iPhone resellers, check out my colleague Bill Snyder's recent article, "How (and Where) to Get the Most Money for Your Old iPhone."

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