So what can a thief do with an iPhone these days?

Just read the other day that a local Apple Store got jacked yet again. Robbers made off with new iPhones. Supposedly they can resell them for $100 a piece. I’m actually surprised it’s that much.

So what exactly could a thief or his fence do with such a device? My understanding is that due to geoblocking, the moment it leaves the store, it’s essentially bricked. I suppose you could try putting it in DFU mode, but then on attempting to re-install iOS I’m assuming the device won’t activate because it belongs to another Apple ID and/or has been registered as stolen. Now a quick Google search shows there are several pages where the claim is made that there’s software to get around this, but since auth happens server side with Apple, I’m assuming those claims are bogus and just reflect various scammers trying to mke a quick buck rather than something that actually allows folks to get around Apple’s activation checks.

So then, sell for parts I guess. But aren’t most parts of value these days cryptographically linked to the iPhone? Isn’t that exactly why not just anybody can replace iPhone parts (say a display or bettery) with some other or possibly 3rd party part without at least incurring warnings on reboot? If it works at all. If some drug addict gets $100 for a stolen iPhone, I’m assuming there must be about $200 to be made by somebody who knows how to actually part it out and sell. So what components can you actually just re-use these days and will they really fetch that kind of money?

I have read about a person buying a highly discounted new iPad from someone at a gas station and then finding out that the box was empty!

So selling a useless iPhone does not seem impossible.

Gives a whole new meaning to the designation “iPad Air”!

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(or if you prefer: YANDEX)

Only if they can quickly sell them to suckers. Apple knows all of the ID numbers for the phone on their store shelves. When there is a theft, they will report the IMEI numbers to all the major carriers. It will be impossible to activate the phone on any mobile network. And it will be impossible to access any Apple services from one of those phones.

Pretty much.

Most of the ones people are likely to buy (batteries, screens, camera modules, etc.) As much as the right-to-repair people (correctly, IMO) complain about the inability to swap components between phones, the policy does effectively kill the resale value of stolen hardware.

I think the thieves are simply going to sell the phones to people who are dumb enough to think it will work. They’ll power it on, find it useless and complain to Apple, who will tell them that it’s stolen. The thieves will be long gone by that point.

I assume that the $100 price you mentioned is simply something low enough that it will attract people willing to pretend it’s a legitimate sale.

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But what happens for one-off thefts? If someone swipes my iPhone in a coffee shop and resells it, how will Apple know the phone is stolen, and should therefore not allow it to be activated for cellular service? While you can use Find My to wipe the phone remotely, it’s my impression that the phone can still be reinstalled and used for cellular service with a new SIM afterward.

Apple doesn’t really need to know the iPhone is stolen (although there is such a database). The point is that when you initially set up your iPhone, you linked it to your Apple ID. From there on, iOS can only be (re-)installed on that iPhone if the user associated with that Apple ID authenticates (Activation Lock). That is why people who sell their old iPhones absolutely need to “un-link” their device before passing it on and why buyers of previously used iPhones absolutely need to establish the iPhone has been released by the previous owner (instructions can be found at the link above).

You cannot re-install iOS without authenticating as the device owner (associated AppleID) first. Only a thief that aready knows your passcode can do anything with that stolen device. Unless of course, you happened to have un-linked the device right before he steals it.

Even if a thief swaps the SIM, they still cannot unlock the iPhone (unless of course your passcode is compromised) and therefore they cannot use it to make or receive calls, let alone do anything else exciting.

What would be much more damaging potentially is if the thief took hold of your SIM card and put it into their phone or some phone they can access. If you had not set a SIM PIN or you have not had your carrier deactivate your SIM, the thief then will get calls intended to go to your number on their device or they can place calls appearing to come from your device. This could for example be used to make calls where he mimics being you or to intercept activation codes sent over SMS. So if the device gets stolen, apart from measures taken through Find My, you should also inform your cell carrier that your SIM card has been stolen so that they can immediately deactivate it and issue you a new replacement SIM. Of course, with eSIM this vector doesn’t exist. There is nothing for a thief to remove. Any access to the eSIM would require the passcode. So even if your iPhone is stolen, as long as only you have the passcode (and it’s strong as in not 1234 and the like), you should be alright. This is why Joanna Stern’s reporting on thieves stealing iPhones after having observed their owners punch in their passcode made such waves — thieves equipped with both the iPhone and the passcode put you at extreme risk of losing control of your entire digital life, definitely the part related to Apple, your AppleID, and iCloud.


What happens if a device is stolen, and then wiped through FindMy remotely by the original owner? Will it still be tied to the original owner‘s AppleID, or can it be reinstalled easily as new?

Wiping just means the data on the device is cryptographically removed (the key used to scramble the stored data is securely deleted). It does not mean the device is deregistered from that AppleID account. Those are two separate actions.


And indeed, this is a problem.

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Yes, that’s exactly the Joanna Stern report I mentioned. Thanks for supplying a link. :+1:

It’s a real shame this is still an unaddressed vector.

I think by and large people assume Apple cannot close this off entirely because too many people don’t remember their iCloud/AppleID password and otherwise wouldn’t be able to access their account (eg. to migrate to a replacement iPhone). I’m sure that’s a very real issue and Apple indeed would have a valid point. That said, I also think they serve a sizable community of people who are knowledgable about and interested in privacy and security, and would therefore value being able to close this loophole at the expense of having to know their AppleID credentials (or be able to restore them).

IMHO it would suit Apple really well to offer, just as an opt-in, shutting off iPhone reset of AppleID/iCloud credentials. Warn users ahead of time about the consequences (as done in other areas of iOS/iCloud), but give them such an option. Granted, this might only be for a limited share of their user base, but that’s what an option is for. Just like they offer a lockdown option for the minuscule portion of their user base that are journalists or activists who are being targeted by terrorist regimes. Just my 2¢.

I agree. Lockdown Mode and the new Contact Key Verification feature are great features to have for people who are high-value targets, but irrelevant for the 99.99999% of the rest of the population. If Apple is going to put that kind of effort into protecting so few, giving interested users the option of closing this loophole seems entirely reasonable.

i saw something a while ago that some countries don’t have blocking for IMEI, so stolen iPhones end up there. Presumably apple still blocks them, so anything that needs an appleid doesn’t work. Maybe just owning something that looks like iPhone is enough for some people.

Definitely the case. That’s why there are so many cheap Chinese iPhone knock-offs sold. They’re Android phones loaded up with skins to make the OS and the bundled apps look a lot like Apple’s software.

I assume that these people care about what total strangers shoulder-surfing them might think and therefore want to put on a good show for them. I personally don’t understand it.