Would You Buy a Used Computer?

Category: Hardware

With all of today’s rampant malware, spyware, and ransomware, would you 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? 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...

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." (I published an eye-opening article on that a while back. See [WOW] What Happens To Amazon Returns?.)

But 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?

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 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 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 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?

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 new PC from Dell, HP, or Lenovo for about $350, with 4GB of RAM and a 1-terabyte hard 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 "Would You Buy a Used Computer?"

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Posted by:

20 Apr 2020

WHAT, you say "overly negative"? That's a massive understatement, Bob!! Anyway, I've purchased numerous used Mac desktops and laptops and NEVER had an issue at all. All were purchased from a very large reseller here in California. All were apparently 'cleaned', refurbished and given a warranty. However, in every case, I had them remove the hard drive and replace with an SSD of equal or larger capacity. On one, I even had them remove the latest Mac OS and replace it with a previous version, the result of my own unwillingness to be the guinea pig for a recent Mac OS 'update'. At the same time, I've purchased many new Macs for myself and family as well, especially so when a 'deal' came along.

Posted by:

20 Apr 2020

@BillP No need to run wiper programs on used hard drives, just boot the OS install from a flash drive and delete all the partitions before OS install using diskpart or the OS install screen. With regard to phones and smart devices, there is usually a way to reset them to factory settings, so just do that.

Posted by:

Granville Alley
20 Apr 2020

I recently bought my wife a "factory refurbished" Apple iMac 27" 5K, with 1 TB SSD, i7 Processor and their top graphics card.

It cost me $600 less than the identical "New" iMac and they threw in the extended wireless keyboard and a track pad along with the standard Magic Mouse.

I have never had a problem buying this kind of gear. With Apple, it is almost inevitably cancelled or returned special orders they can no longer sell as "New" under Federal Warranty Law.

The iMac came with not only the full factory warranty but they bundled 3 Years of Applecare with it. This is not as huge a bargain as some private sellers might offer, but I know it is from Apple directly, I have 3 Years of AppleCare Support and she has a great new computer that will run for many years to come.

I have also bought MacBook Pro's and other iMac's for my business "refurbished" both directly from Apple and from Authorized Apple Dealers. I have yet to have had a problem and have yet to not gotten a good deal on the very latest hardware.

It sometimes takes a week or two of shopping to get exactly what you want - you have to wait for a returned or rejected order - but if you are patient (or plan ahead) you can usually get exactly the configuration you want.

I have found that if you shop at Back-To-School time you will usually find an excellent selection of gear parents and grandparents bought their kids which turned out not to be exactly what they wanted so it was returned - often unopened.

I understand clearly your concerns, but the iMac I got my wife replaced the last active Windows Computer in our home and we are far happier and have far fewer issues with an exclusively Apple environment.

The Mac's work seamlessly with our other Apple Gear, iPad Pro's, iPhones, Apple Watches, Apple TV and Air Pod's Pro. Sharing Data, devices, content is easy and as I move from device to device nearly all my software carries the latest changes I have made to content with me.

My Business has been Apple Only except for some Oracle/Sun Servers & storage and we have experienced nothing but smooth operations since we made the change over exclusively 5 years ago. My employees are much more satisfied with the Apple Gear and we have found that our total cost of ownership is significantly less than when we had a mixed or a windows only environment.

I have 700+ Users on my company network, btw. The very few software applications that have to run in a Window's Environment (we are a small Aerospace Manufacturing Company) due to DOD, Supplier or Customer requirements run just fine using Bootcamp or Parallels to run Windows.

OSX is basically an enhanced UNIX Software so our engineering software also runs great.

But back to the point, my experience has been very good with Apple Factory Refurbished Gear and I save quite a bit of money over our Enterprise Corporate Pricing by choosing it.

One Last thought also slightly off topic. My Apple Watch saved my life last October when it identified Afib, when I had never had Heart Disease signs previously. My Primary Care Physician has told me that because I had, had Severe Pneumonia twice in the past 3 years without the Apple Watch flagging it he would have assumed I was having that again.

Instead he sent me straight to a local emergency room where they did an echo-cardiogram and then sent me straight on to a regional hospital with a Cardiac Department. I had less than 20% heart function at the time. I was treated with two stents and my new cardiologist tells me that any delay of treatment of my Congestive Heart Failure would have almost certainly killed me.

I had no prior indications of heart disease, extremely low cholesterol and other indicators. So I am perhaps rightfully prejudiced towards Apple Gear.

Bob, I appreciate greatly your advice in general but in this instance, I have to marginally disagree at least as to factory refurbished Apple Gear.

Posted by:

Robert A.
20 Apr 2020

HP and Dell both have an on-line department that sell tons of off-lease computers from businesses that use dozens, if not hundreds of computers in their offices, for three or four years, and then replace the fleet with new units, once the lease expired. HP and Dell send those used computers to a third-party "remanufacturer," that opens up, inspects and cleans every tower, and, according the computer makers, wipe the HDD and reinstall the latest version of Windows 10, either Home, or, more often, the Pro version, depending on which version was originally installed on the computer at the factory.

The prices vary from about 200 to 300 dollars to 500 to 700 dollars, depending on the age of the computer, the chip speed, and the performance level of the chip - an I3, an I5 or I7, from Intel, or a similar version chip from AMD. and the overall condition of the tower cabinet. Keyboards and mice are often not included in the price, as those pieces usually are well-worn and dirty, after years of use, and are generally junked-out by the remanufacturer. However, it is easy to find new, basic corded keyboard and mouse bundles, from Logitech or Microsoft, and others, available from Amazon, Best Buy, Office Depot, New Egg, Micro Center and Costco, etc., for usually under $30.00.

The biggest issue on these refurbished units is the HDDs, which, beside being a possible repository for viruses and malware, is that they may be near the end of their useful lives, especially if they saw heavy use by their former users. And many of the original HDDs may be of low capacity, 250 or 500 GB units, when the default standard for HDDs in most new desktop computers is a 1TB unit. But since the advent and rise in popularity of solid-state drives, (SSDs) the older HDDs units have fallen in price, so much so that a 1TB unit from Western Digital or Seagate, can usually be purchased for under $50.00, or a newer, faster responding HDD can be bought for well under $125.00. If one is lucky enough to buy a refurbished computer that still has the genuine Microsoft Windows serial number sticker attached to the cabinet, one could replace the old HDD with a new, fresh unit, and using the serial number from the Windows sticker, can download a legitimate, up-to-date version of Windows 10, direct from Microsoft. It is a simple, relatively quick procedure, and there are dozens of YouTube videos available that will take the viewer through a step-by-step procedure to accomplish that goal.

Posted by:

20 Apr 2020

Bought a MacBook Air over a decade ago direct from Apple. It was described as a return that Apple checked out. No problems.

Posted by:

Paul C
20 Apr 2020

In the past ten years I've purchased 3 used laptops(Toshiba), 1 Chromebook(love it) and received a free lenovo laptop. I replaced all hdd 's with ssd's and all computers have run without any serious flaws.
The BIGGEST problem is WINDOWS10, I hate it and dont use it.

Posted by:

20 Apr 2020

Well, Bob, you naturally have to be cautious when giving advice, as you don't want to get criticised or sued should someone follow it and have problems.
Just as a balance, though, my guess from years of observation is that the proportion of people buying second-hand computers who have malware problems is very small (I have never met one) while the proportion of those buying new computers who have crapware and Windows 10 problems is very large.
If there are comparative studies, I'd like to hear about them!
This is being written on a Dell made in 2002 which is still in everyday use, so old machines can be kept going, but like old cars they need TLC, includung hardware upgrades, especially HDDs and RAM, and the right software.

Posted by:

20 Apr 2020

I've purchased used computers. The first thing I do is wipe the hard drive (if the drive supports internal secure erase, so much the better). Then, install software, download and install patches and updates, and voila!

I've had some negative experiences with peripherals and wouldn't recommend that unless you know what you're doing in terms of ensuring it is malware free.

Posted by:

20 Apr 2020

Thanks Bob, great article today.

Yes, I have bought new and refurbished computers, motherboards, CPUs and so forth. Not memory modules or hard drives. But, it is highly possible that when I purchase a refurbished computer, the hard drive easily could be a used or refurbished one. I do buy from reputable companies, Dell, Newegg, and years ago a company called Computer-Show. Every one that I have purchased as worked properly right out the box. I have also bought refurbished computers for family and friends. In this world today, everyone truly needs a computer and the reality is that most of us can not afford to buy new ones.

The computer I am using right now, I purchased from Computer-Show with a 6 month warranty (which was excellent, at that time). I bought it in 2013 and the bios was also in 2013. A year ago, my Western Digital 1 TB Hard Drive died. So, I got a Western Digital 2 TB Hard Drive to replace it. When I looked at the dead Hard Drive manufactured date, it was dated Dec. 2002. I would say having a Hard Drive last 10 years and 3 months is awesome!!!

I have replaced the power supply, since this Dell model only puts in a 235W Power Supply and I wanted to use a Graphics Card that was definitely upgrading. However, the new card needed at least a 300W Power Supply. I found a used power supply that fits my computer, that is 305W. It handles my Graphic Card just fine. I don't have a massive Graphic Card, but it works great for what I need in computing and gaming!

I have bought used and discontinued motherboards. When one needs to save money, used and refurbished helps. Discontinued computer products have helped me in many ways when I build from scratch. I do look for good deals at REPUTABLE dealers and companies!!! Getting a model that has been replaced by a newer model, has saved me LOTS of money and they still have the original warranty, too. This is really no different than buying the year before model car, when the new ones come out. You get a brand new car and better prices.

Now, what I do is for the geeks, not for newbies or those who barely know their way around a computer. But, I was a newbie at one time and learned my own lessons and how to be cautious. I do believe that it was easier to learn back in the late 90s and early 2000s than it is today. The main reason, yes there were Viruses, Trojan Horses, Worms and Malware, but they honestly were easier to clean and protect, than it is today.

Today I have armed myself and my Hubby's computer with Bitdefender Total Security. It works, has good testing results and I got 3 years service for an excellent price, covering 5 devices. I have learned, the hard way many times, over the years, to read articles by Bob Rankin, and other Geeks that I trust, to know what is coming to pass. Reading is vital to keep abreast of trends, outstanding products and how computers have change over time, as well as the future!

Bob is definitely responsible for what I know today. Not only is Bob knowledgeable but he knows how to explain things, in a simpler way. I have been getting Bob's newsletter since 1997, I still prefer Bob's suggestion and teaching articles to most other methods.

Posted by:

Mike Davies
21 Apr 2020

My local independent computer repair shop in Falmouth, UK, sells refurbs. Their general reputation is superb and everyone speaks very highly of them.
A couple of years ago I bought from them a used HP Elitebook with all the bells and whistles including a super-HD screen which had been previously been owned by a business, I don't remember how much I paid but it wasn't very much.
They had replaced the Disk Drive with a Solid State Drive and upgraded the RAM to 8GB. At my request they also installed Windows 7 (which I later upgraded to Win 10).
I have to say it has performed magnificently without any problems, after this experience I wouldn't buy new again, always a professional refurb, you get so much more value for your money.

Posted by:

Jock McLaren
21 Apr 2020

I am an old retired military IT Security woggie so of course I consider the probable security implications of using recycled computers. Would I buy one? Never. I do though, acquire many discarded computers and re-purpose them for general use but would never use them for banking or business use. The OS on most of the old ones that tend choke and puke with Windows 10 get toasted and Linux installed which gives adequate office productivity and Internet access for folks who need basic services and don't worry about games and crap designed only for MS OS.

Posted by:

Sam Coleman
21 Apr 2020

Bob is worried about malware and suggested throwing out the hard drive. It seems simpler, and adequate, to delete the partitions on the hard drive and then do a clean install of Windows. I recommend that for new machines too, to clean out the bloatware.

Posted by:

21 Apr 2020

I always buy second hand computers - I don't have money for new kit - and always choose Dell as being dependable and robust.
What I do is simply remove the hard drive and put in my old hard drive, so no virus passes by the hard drive. I'll cross my fingers that there is nothing lurking in the rest of the machine.
Next I put the new drive in the old machine and totally wipe and re-format it, before cloning it from the old drive in the newer machine, then swap drives again.
So please keep buying new y'all, that will drive down the second hand price of my next replacement!

Posted by:

21 Apr 2020

In our town we have a store that ONLY sells used/refurbished computers; BLH Computers. They also have shops in a couple of nearby towns. I've bought 4 or 5 or 6 from them over the years. Great prices. Great people. And they do service in house.
BLH is also very big into recycling anything electronic. Just drop it off.
What a fabulous place. The one time I had a problem with one of the PCs I had bought from them, they simply replaced it AFTER cloning the drive from old to new.

Posted by:

Frank Cizek
21 Apr 2020

I bought a refurb a year ago for $160 US. I expected it to be about a year old & didn't do my homework. It turned out to be several years older than that & worked fine for what I normally do, except it choked on my favorite online game. So if there's any possibility that you might need to stress your cpu, be sure to do your homework first! If nothing else, the price might tell you that you aren't getting anything current. ; )

Posted by:

Dennis English
22 Apr 2020

About 2 years ago I purchased a refurbished Dell desk top unit from a local, reputable IT business I patronize. It happened to be from a state university turnover, and was part several purchases at the time. It has been no problem, and runs very well for me. In this case I know the seller made sure the unit is clear of problems. I would not consider buying from a private party.

Posted by:

23 Apr 2020

Looks like I'm in the minority. I've bought 2 refurbished laptops and both needed a new hard drive immediately upon receipt. I returned one and kept the other. The only good thing was that I got a fresh hard drive with absolutely nothing on it.

Posted by:

24 Apr 2020

There are 5 computers in this household (just 2 people). One is self-built the other 4 are all refurbished Dell computers - 2 laptops and 2 desktops. Have not had any problems with any of them.

Posted by:

25 Apr 2020

My first used computer was an old 464 from an auction, as is. I knew it was not working. I learned a tremendous amount about how computers physically work. And I used it for many years. Things were simpler, then.

Posted by:

John Kincaid
01 May 2020

Reading the various comments, it's obvious that the majority that disagree with Bob are people that have either grown up in the digital age or had/needed the opportunity to gain knowledge on the dos & don'ts of PCs.
For older persons such as me, we were given as much info as needed to operate them where we were employed, then learned everything else by trial and error. This is why I'm on Bob's mailing list. (Even so, not a day goes by at work that these digital age whizz-kids don't call IT. They're fooling themselves if they think they know more than how to text on phones.)
I agree with Honest Bob's advice to not trust 2nd-hand etc.

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