Should You Buy a Used Computer?

Category: Hardware

In today’s age of rampant malware, would you buy a refurbished computer? How about a used computer offered at a thrift store, on Ebay, or Craigslist? What about a used hard drive, memory module, printer, or even a mouse? Is it ever safe to go with used tech hardware? Read on for my advice...

When Is Used Hardware Safe?

Such questions are not raised only by the tinfoil-hat crowd. The most cursory attention to security-related tech news finds examples of even brand-new hardware 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?

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. Refurbished gear 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.

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.

Buying a Used Computer - Is it safe?

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 made 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 the AVG Rescue CD and the Windows Defender Offline disk. You can find other options here.

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. 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 Chromecast dongle, a "smart" appliance, or a relatively cheap smart light bulb, I would buy a new one.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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

(See all 31 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

23 Jan 2018

Over time, most of my purchases have been replacements for aging or failing equipment. When choosing between value (cost) or latest technology, I've always chosen the latter, since I plan on keeping, upgrading and maintaining things, longer than most people I know. For that reason alone, I choose to save up for a current product, rather than to save some coinage on machines that have already been in use for awhile.

While this strategy has served my needs well, it is not based on knowing anyone who had problems with used purchases, so I don't dissuade anyone from going that route. In fact, while setting up their equipment, I have yet to uncover malware or serious issues. I simply offer cautionary advice... to know your source.

Posted by:

23 Jan 2018

I have purchased two pairs of refurbished IBM/Lenovo "Thinkcentre" mini desktops over the last 8 years to keep up with new versions of Windows. I used Laplink PC Mover to port everything except OS to newly acquired machines.

These amazing little units are "rock solid" and have had no problems with hidden malware. I do use ESET "Smart Security", but your suggestion to run a complete security scan on any refurbished or used computer before connecting to my network or anything else is a very good one.

I do intend to continue purchasing "refurbs" when the need arises - but will follow your excellent advice in the future. In today's crazy world of malware, it certainly pays to be extra cautious. Thanks Bob for your always valuable information!

Posted by:

23 Jan 2018

My last three computers (we're going back years here) have come from eBay. My husband's as well. Usually from places that put together a machine according to your specs. Never had any problems and in fact the one I'm using now is over three years old.

I have nothing against refurbished either. My monitors are refurbished and I've gotten high quality for a reduced price, and never a problem. New stuff would be great, but to come near even my minimum specs is just too expensive.

Posted by:

23 Jan 2018

I have purchased around a half-dozen laptops, desktops and tablets, in recent years, usually from
Microsoft-certified refurbishers (meaning off-lease
business-grade equipment). My only regets are two
early-model Surface RT tablets and their issue is no
upgrade path. I run Avast Free, Malwarebytes, Super
Anti Spyware and ADWCleaner(now part of Malwarebytes), the latter three on an as-needed basis. So far, so good. And found thumbdrives?
No, thanks, especially if found outside NORAD or
Fort George Meade.

Posted by:

23 Jan 2018

Hi Bob
Many thanks for another thought-provoking article. I have only ever bought second hand computers or built my own from new components (poor pensioners cannot afford new computers).
Every time Ibought second hand I simply swapped my old drive for the new computer's drive, then later cloned my old drive onto the new machine's HDD.
It would be nteresting to know how many viruses arrive with second hand drives as opposed to how many are picked up in everyday surfing.
Ahhh, give me five minutes in a dark alley with one of these malware merchants - I'll bring my own baseball bat....

All one can hope to do is minimise the risks with decent anti-virus and anti-malware software - and reular backups.

Posted by:

23 Jan 2018

Awww. . .Used, Refurbished and Off Lease Desktop computers. . .Yep, I have bought quite a few, not only for myself, but family and friends as well. I know that I have been extremely lucky, no malware, ransomware, Trojan Horses, Worms or Viruses.

One thing I think is important. . .Buy from a known refurbished or off lease company, that honestly does the reselling for their business. The companies that I have purchased these computers from. . .Frequently install new or completely refurbished hard drives.

How do I know? I open them up as soon as I get the PCs, out of their shipping boxes and start examining them, inside and out. I know that most times there will be minor blemishes on the computer case, but their construction is solid and strong.

Personally, I have found that the Dell products are in good shape and I really like their choice of computer case. Yes, they do weight quite a bit, but for a desktop computer, the case should be strong and have weight to them. There is less vibration with a heavier computer case.

Check and double check the possibility of malware. As Bob said, even brand new products can be affected. Remember, when all of the Lenovo computers were tracking everywhere you went, unbeknownst to you? Lenovo purposely added malware for profit? or whatever.

Many known computer stores online sell refurbished computers either desktops or laptops and they also try to sell recertified refurbished computers. I have found that those who offer at least a 6 month warranty on a refurbished or off lease computers, you will usually get a good deal overall. I have also found that with these longer warranties should anything be wrong, these companies will honor the warranties.

I have built my own computers, quite a few, and also purchased off lease refurbished computers. I have felt safe with both of them. Right now, I am using an off lease refurbished desktop and I wouldn't trade it for all the tea in China. . .Thank you, very much. }:O)

Posted by:

Frank Verano
23 Jan 2018

I bought one computer and one computer in my life, an E Machine and that was around 1996. To this day, I still help others with their computers and many times they just give me their old computers, monitors and printers. I fixed 'em then used them myself.I never had any virus or malware problem that I couldn't fix. But, alas! I'll be 100 years old in a few days and a friend just gave me a new computer as present!

Posted by:

Bob K
23 Jan 2018

Have had good luck with refurbished computers. And, how else can you buy a decent machine with Win 7 on it?

Posted by:

Michael Webb
23 Jan 2018

Bob, you did us a disservice by putting ALL of your weight on the issue of possible malware. I didn't see a thing about the positives of owning a used (better yet, professionally refurbished) computer.

I've been doing the "geek thing" since 1987, and the single biggest issue I've had with used computers until the last 3-4 years has not been malware, but the power of the machine.

I'm running a Dell Optiplex 760 that is probably close to 10 years old and originally had Vista Business installed (the old COA sticker is still attached with a big "X" mark on it). Until recently, a 10 year old PC would have been considered one slow dog of a computer by me, requiring Puppy Linux or an earlier version of DOS/Windows to get decent performance from. This one just needed a second (bigger) hard drive and added RAM to perform quite well under Windows 7. And I got it for a fraction of the cost of a new one (which means I wouldn't have bought a new one--not enough money, honey). I've never been financially able to buy new, so my discovery of professionally refurbished computers was a Godsend.

Yes, a used/refurbished computer DOES need a good scrubdown for malware (I didn't do that first thing, but at least I installed good protection right away so any nastyware would be caught pronto--none was). But if I were a n00b reading your article, I would be scared off to buying new regardless of price, which would mean you were not really doing us a service (but doing a good one for OEMs), knowing the bigger picture. Is your IBM background (and their tradition of FUD) coming back to the surface? I hope not. Balance, Bob, balance.

EDITOR'S NOTE: It's been 21 years since I left IBM. I had my bloodwork checked recently, and there was no trace of blue iron, so I think we're safe there. You'd be surprised at the percentage of people who have no clue about how to scan a used computer for malware, much less install new RAM or hard drive. Ask them to format the disk and install Linux? Maybe one in a thousand.

You can (for example) buy a new Dell Inspiron desktop for $279, with Windows 10, 4GB RAM and a 1TB hard drive. A Samsung Chromebook 3 sells for $179 at Staples. How much will you save, after buying a junker and upgrading the memory and hard drive?

Posted by:

Dr. Sheldon Cooper
23 Jan 2018

Malware aside, if buying a used Dell PC always check the service tag on Steer clear of sellers who will not provide the ST (common on eBay in my experience).

Posted by:

Dr. Sheldon Cooper
23 Jan 2018

Malware aside, if buying a used Dell PC always check the service tag on Steer clear of sellers who will not provide the ST (common on eBay in my experience).

Posted by:

Michael Webb
23 Jan 2018

P.S. I double dog dare you to write a column praising the benefits of used (and especially professionally refurbished) computers, with a reference back to this article for the important precautions that ARE needed once the decision to get used/refurbished is made. You've said enough here to scare off the n00bs, so you don't need to say much about precautions there.
Give some guidance as to the minimum (and optimum) requirements of processor, RAM and hard drive size for running a PC with a recent operating system (they almost ALWAYS require more horsepower than the prior versions). Just do it, friend.

Posted by:

23 Jan 2018

Bob, as another commenter said you may be a bit paranoid. Even if I bought a new computer after I have used it guess what? It becomes a used computer.
Granted some people cannot format the hard disk and reinstall the O/S and applications; but they can scan with malware tools.

I have a Dell Vostro 430 Desktop with a quad core I5 cpu and 10 gigs of ram which I bought with Win 7 prinstalled for 150.00 including shipping. It is super fast compared to my old single core pentium rig. To buy an equivalent new machine would cost 20 times as much. The only problem I ever had was from a Windows update that caused my machine to blue screen. I had to find a switch in the Bios to correct that.

Long story short, if you find what you want in a used machine go for it; especially if the vendor is a certified reseller.

Posted by:

23 Jan 2018

Risk assessment is something everyone has to measure on their own. Some of us here are super-users and can take risks that some of us here could dare not take. I'm one of the latter, so I buy new. But I try to learn from the rest of you as much as I can. Thanks Bob, for the article. It helped to me make a choice I've been pondering.

Posted by:

Paul Morris
24 Jan 2018

Personally, if I wanted to purchase a Used or Refurbished Laptop, I would buy one and only Hewett Packard's! They are the most reliable. A friend of mine bought one 3 years ago from HP, and has Not encountered one problem. The only thing that I do not like is the Prices for Used or Refurbished Laptops. There prices are pretty CLOSE to New Ones? Cannot figure that out?

Posted by:

24 Jan 2018

I bought a computer at a pawn shop. I turned it on a the shop and checked the specs so that was all good. When I got it home I found that the "admin" account was not and the real one was locked by the person who had wrecked the OS installed a host of Malware and PUPs and locked me out of the system totally. Thankfully this was at the time of the free Win 10 upgrades. The computer of course would not let me upgrade and part of the MS sticker was worn off, so I dug out my wife's old laptop which was no longer using W7 and built a Win 10 disk using the wife's license. Long way around but it worked and that laptop is still zipping right along for as old as it is. Learned my lesson though. Going for the used box? Take a USB malware scanner with you.

Posted by:

24 Jan 2018

Here in Springfield, IL (and nearby local towns) we have a business called BLH Computers that refurbishes PCs and sells them on the cheap. They also accept many electronics for recycle.

If getting a used PC from a valid reseller, they will have used DBAN (or something similar) and installed a valid OS.

And you can't beat the price. I have bought several over the years.

Posted by:

24 Jan 2018

Refurb hardware is offered by several retailers and I do feel safe (95%) with those units and any preloaded software is best blown away. The biggest concern is the hardware it self. What has been done to check the hardware (HDD, RAM, Mobo) and insure they meet OEM standards. What is the warranty period for the equipment and possibly and extension of the warranty.

Posted by:

Bill Schneider
30 Jan 2018

To Michael: Funny coincidence, I JUST bought a Dell Optiplex 760! Ebay($30+shp). Have 4 other Dell laps too. Do you know of any sites for we 'Dell-ers'?

Posted by:

05 Feb 2018

You nailed the whole purpose of the article in your "EDITOR'S NOTE" to MichaelWebb.
But I don't think that the IBM blue blood has been fully purged from your system; else, you could/would not be doing this great service for the rest of us.
THank you.

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