Should I Buy a Used Computer?

Category: Hardware

A reader asks: “With all the rampant malware, spyware, and ransomware, is ot safe to buy a used computer for sale at a thrift store, on Ebay, or Craigslist? How about a refurbished computer offered by Dell, HP, or another well-known vendor? And... what about a used hard drive, or memory chip? Is it ever safe to go with used tech hardware?” Read on for my advice...

Is it Safe to Buy Used Computer Hardware?

People buy used cars every day, with the understanding that something could go wrong. If you're lucky, you might get a limited warranty from a dealer. But if you buy from a private individual, it's a "buyer beware" situation, and you hope for the best. Of course, many items are sold online as "used" or "reburbished" and things work out just fine. But you'd be surprised how much returned (and sometimes defective) merchandise is being sold online as "new."

So what about computer gear? Is there a chance that malware could be lurking in a used computer, a hard drive, or even a printer? What about state-sponsored spy organizations implanting spyware in the computer supply chain? Such questions are not raised only by the tinfoil-hat crowd. A bit of googling will turn up examples of brand-new computers and smartphones being infected with malware. If the culprit can be found, it’s usually a disgruntled or careless factory employee who allowed malware into the production line. How much more vulnerable is used hardware, which lacks any clear "chain of custody"?

Any computer that has been used by someone else is suspect, because anyone - no matter how security-conscious - may allow malware to slip into his/her system. Even automatic updates of legit software can (and have) introduced malware. There have even been examples of antivirus software being corrupted.

Refurbished gear from Amazon and other legit sellers is guaranteed to be restored to factory-specified performance levels. But that means the machine performs adequately on benchmark tests. It does not, necessarily, mean that it has been scanned with a good anti-malware utility, let alone thoroughly cleansed of any malware. When shopping refurbs, be sure to ask specifically about malware scanning, including names of anti-malware software used and what components are scanned.

Buying a Used Computer - Is it safe?

Don’t expect refurbished gear’s limited warranty to cover undetected malware delivered with the refurbished hardware. Even if you can prove you found the malware almost immediately after opening the box, it will be an uphill battle to convince a vendor that you were not the source of the infection.

I would not trust any seller or giver of used computers, from a stranger on Craigslist to my family’s “IT geek.” OK, I might trust the latter, because he is me! That’s my point: trust only yourself to do a proper job of checking used gear for malware, and do the job properly.

Before plugging anything into any “new” used computer - including allowing it to connect to your WiFi network - you should boot it from a rescue disk that does an automatic anti-malware scan. You can make a rescue disk with Windows or your anti-malware program. If you haven’t made such a disk, do it before you need it! Here are instructions for several offline malware scanners you can run from a CD.

Running blindly with a used computer is kind of like moving into a fully-furnished abandoned house. Would you sleep on a bed that might be harboring bed bugs or dust mites? Would you sit on that dirty old couch? (Don't ask me what I found behind the couch cushions in a rented summer apartment.)

Another option when purchasing a used or refurbished computer is to toss the hard drive. Install a new hard drive, and either restore your files from a backup, or start from scratch with a Windows installation disk. Did the previous owner fail to apply security patches, use anti-virus tools, and keep software up to date? Did he download stuff from dark corners of the Internet? You don't want to inherit someone else's problems.

RAM (memory) modules should be safe. When they’re without power, they lose all data stored on them, including any RAM-resident malware. However, that is not true for firmware chips such as those embedded in printers and other peripherals, including graphics cards that may be inside a used computer. Firmware chips retain their contents even without power.

A mouse does not contain any writable memory, not even firmware. A mouse is driven by the driver software that is installed on a computer. I would not trust a USB flash drive full of “mouseware” that might accompany a used mouse. I would download the latest version of the compatible software from the manufacturer’s site, not a third-party software repository.

What About Other Gadgets?

For that matter, I would not trust any USB flash drive or external storage device that I didn't purchase brand new myself. Aside from the fact that a careless person might be passing along an infected USB drive, it's a well-known tactic for bad guys to load malware on USB drives, and "accidentally" leave them where someone might find them. Under the right conditions, simply inserting an infected drive into a USB slot will transfer a virus to your computer.

A used printer contains plenty of writable memory in which malware can lurk. Most modern printers require bi-directional communication with the host PC, meaning the printer can transmit data to the PC. That data may include malware, so treat your “new” used printer as a potential threat. It does seem unlikely, but this article from Computer Weekly details how it can happen.

For the first month or so after acquiring it, keep your PC’s shields at their highest sensitivity, and scan for infections daily. Better some false positives than a malware infection that was timed not to go off until you became complacent.

I would not buy a used “Internet of Things” device at all. Every one of them contains writable memory in which malware can hide, and there is presently no satisfactory way to scan IoT things for malware. Whether it’s a "smart" appliance, or a relatively cheap smart light bulb, I would buy a new one.

Sorry if I seem overly negative on buying used or refurbished computer equipment. But you can (for example) buy a brand new PC from BestBuy or NewEgg for under $400, with 8GB of RAM memory and a 256GB SSD drive. How much will you save, after buying a junker and upgrading the hard drive? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Should I Buy a Used Computer?"

Posted by:

12 Dec 2022

years ago i bought a couple of refurbished and had no problem, but in the last 5 years twice i bought one from walmart, never again!!!

Posted by:

12 Dec 2022

I rebuild old computers that have come from various sources.

If I decide to keep the old C: drive, I employ the "factory reset" option, run the cipher command to clear out any possible file fragments, run a thorough scumware check, and then follow through on all the upgrades.

More often than not I put in a new hard drive and start from scratch. I have a stack of old W7 COA stickers salvaged from dead computers; the code usually is accepted and gets an authorized copy of W10 up and running.

Posted by:

Stan Sexton
12 Dec 2022

I have bought many used desktops from authorized Dell refurbishers. A good source is Newegg or Tiger Direct.I only buy large Dell desktops because they are upgradeable. I add larger video cards and second DVD drives.

Posted by:

12 Dec 2022

I have bought used computers and don't have too much trouble.I have to do due diligence when doing so.I usually try to buy computers that are ten years old or less.

That means the computer should have several SATA connectors to connect the latest hard drives and SSDs.With the hard drives,I usually wipe the drives and install my choice of OS,Windows or Linux.

Sometimes I find a machine with not enough RAM,so I end up adding memory.I do a quick look at the motherboard to see if there are cracks or mangled cables.Don't forget to do a Memtest to check any RAM you have.

A quick go-through with a dust cleaner to get rid of dust and dirt is helpful.

I wish you all the best of luck when buying a used computer.

Posted by:

Paul S
12 Dec 2022

Bought a refurbished Lenovo mini through Newegg. Had a problem with the video. Couldn't resolve after trying several options. The refurbishing outfit (Deluxe PC's) sent me a replacement. Also offered money back if not satisfied. Unit is a Lenovo ThinkCentre M920Q Tiny Desktop with i5 8500T 2.1 Ghz, 16 GB DDR4, 256GB NVMe M.2SSD W10 Pro. Runs well and is upgradable. I would buy from them again.

Posted by:

Jack Underwood
12 Dec 2022

I have purchased used computers (Dell) from Discount Electronics in Austin Texas without any problems. I upgrade the drive to a SSD Terabyte and have them pre load Firefox, Google Chrome & Explorer. A reputable reseller should be providing its customers with a clean device.

Posted by:

Barb Wire
12 Dec 2022

I bought 2 used Chromebooks online and have been happy with them from the start. They are faster than my Hp and more reliable.

Posted by:

Renaud Olgiati
12 Dec 2022

For your security, start the computer from a DBAN live CD, an completely blank the HS(s).

Then install an OS and software.

Posted by:

12 Dec 2022

I've bought several used computers, usually marked as refurbished, over the years. Most have been from Tiger Direct, with Amazon in second place. (I've had, and currently have, more used computers than new ones, simply because of price.) None have had malware.(I admit I may have been lucky... who knows?) My main problem has been hard drives. I have two laptop replacement hard drives and one for a desktop in my room right now. All three are still in their sealed gray plastic packages. I swear I will get around to installing them, but I'm generally too busy using the computers that work. (One ancient, one given to me when a relative got a new one, one bought refurbished, and one ancient EOL Chromebook. Four, two bought new and two bought refurbished, awaiting repair.)

Posted by:

12 Dec 2022

I bought my first refurbished computer, Dell Optiplex 755, in 2015 and it's still going strong, albeit a bit slower. I've given thought to replacing it since it cannot be upgraded to Windows 11 but have decided to stay with it as long as I can. When I get ready to replace it I will definitely go with refurbished.

Posted by:

12 Dec 2022

I volunteer at a homeless shelter, where we sometimes get computers donated.
I use a thumbdrive with the latest Windows 10 install package, downloaded directly from Microsoft, to do a fresh install. When it prompts me on which partition to install, i delete each and every one, until i get just an unassigned disk. *After* the fresh install, i connect to the internet. If the machine automatically activates, i proceed. If not (which is rare), it gets scrapped. Simple.

Posted by:

12 Dec 2022

I have had very good experiences in purchasing refurbished computers from establishments that are designated as "Microsoft Certified Refurbishers".

In every case, a completely newer version of Windows was upgraded by the refurbisher from "scratch". My first batch of mini desktops were IBM and Lenovo ThinkCentres which have served me without problems for the last decade.

I recently replaced these with 3 HP compacts, sold by various refurbishers thru Amazon. They were all upgraded to "fresh" installs of Windows 10 from Windows 8. Amazon provides a free 90 day return window, which I used for one of the 3 machines, and which was quickly replaced with a perfect unit.

These are "workhorse" small desktops that arrive looking virtually new, perfectly clean, and whisper quiet. Priced at about $120, with free shipping, you cannot find this kind of processing power for anything like this money.

The only downside of these HP wonders is that they cannot be upgraded to Windows 11, so after 2025 I plan to install Ubuntu Linux on them with a dual boot interface - so I can occasionally use Windows 10 for apps that are not available on Linux.

I hope to achieve another decade of solid use with these "babies" - at the same time reducing my "waste footprint", without further inundating our bulging landfills.

Posted by:

12 Dec 2022

I'm disappointed that you recommend scrapping a hard drive. It's not needed and environmentally we don't need more scrap.
I almost exclusively buy used or refurbished computers/laptops. First thing I do is run DBAN and wipe the hard drive. Also I always remove the heat sink and clean up the cpu and put on new thermal paste (especially important on laptops). I have rescued several "non-working" systems with that step.
Side note, if getting rid of a system, use DBAN to make sure all your data is wiped. It's amazing what you can find on used systems. People leave their passport scans, driver's license scans, personal information. Businesses leave all their accounting and HR information on them.

Posted by:

13 Dec 2022

@cal67 - There is no point in keeping a 10-year-old 40-120 GB mechanical drive. It's too small for much of anything (even data storage, as 64 GB flash drives are only a few dollars each) - and any mechanical drive that old can't be trusted with real data.

Most of these I take apart and dump the pieces into a bin to take to the local metal recycler. (I did keep one partially-disassembled one to show curious people what they look like inside.)

Posted by:

13 Dec 2022

The last new computer I bought was an Amstrad. I have three HDDs or SSDs which I install immediately on the new gear. If you do this, beware of leaving more than one working OS on different disks. Recently when I booted my Dell, everything since 15 March had disappeared. Panic, - backups available but would take two days to fully re-load.
Turned out that WIN10 had arbitrarily decided to boot, not from the OS SSD but from an older version of the OS on a spinning disk. Re-ordering the boot sequence returned several thousand files, folders and recent lists I had thought lost. Two versions of an OS can be like Schoedinger's PC - parallel universes which are confusing if you don't know which one you are in!

Posted by:

13 Dec 2022

A few years ago I bought a refurbished Lenovo from an unremembered online source and immediately installed Ubuntu. I've not had any problems with the computer.

Posted by:

13 Dec 2022

Wow! Looked up article from Computer Weekly and found two words under 'Mitigating the risk' that were not spelled correctly! :organisation and also optimisation. Artificial intelligence? This box did pick up the error, so you are OK Bob! Thanks for all of your help, I have used a lot of your tips!! Harold

Posted by:

14 Dec 2022

I've purchased numerous used iMacs with great success. In every single case, I've had the seller replace the hard drive with a SSD before I pick it up. As long as you deal with a reputable company, you are in good hands; I've never had any problems with performance or security. My preferred seller (Apple authorized) is LA Computer in Anaheim California:

Posted by:

Bob Hill
16 Dec 2022

I buy and recommend refurbished Dells from the Dell Business Outlet. Warranties are same as new. It's very easy to select the specs you want, and specify refurbished, scratched/dented, or new. Save hundreds of dollars. For very low cost, Staples has a website with a wide range of refurbished systems. Select 8th-generation or newer Intel CPUs so they'll run Windows 11 after Windows 10 End-of-Life. All come with freshly installed Windows and the usual out-of-box experience of setting up a new system.

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