Check Serial Numbers On Used Service Gadgets Before Buying

Reader Mike reports he got screwed buying a used TiVo off eBay. It turned out 1) It would need a new $20 access card for DirecTV to activate it and 2) DirecTV wouldn’t authorize sending a new access card because the box was linked to a defaulted account. The lesson Mike says he learned is that, “If anyone plans on buying any used DirectTV equipment make sure you call DirectTV with the Serial Number and RID number off the unit BEFORE you purchase it to make sure it’s not coming from a defaulted account. If not, you chance buying an electronic brick.” This is true when buying other used electronic service items with service contracts linked to them, like cellphones.

(Photo: striatic)


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  1. GMFish says:

    Oh, I’m sure the generous and fair-minded souls at eBay will remedy this situation promptly and justly.

  2. Quickness says:

    Why anyone would buy that type of equipment off eBay is beyond me..

    Most of that stuff is supposed to be returned to the company, and when it’s not it is flagged and you can’t activate it.

    It’s a pretty popular “scam”.

  3. m1k3g says:

    What kind of policy is that? “We won’t activate the device because the previous owner defaulted on their account” ??? Sounds like a load of crap, if you ask me. They just want to sell more boxes, greedy bastards.

  4. ElizabethD says:

    Cue eBay hate mail.

    (mostly deserved)

  5. m1k3g says:


    Used Tivo’s don’t have to be returned. You buy them outright. Only the ‘branded’ devices from the cable or satellite providers are rented.

  6. Pro-Pain says:

    People actually buy this kind of stuff on Ebay? Seriously?? That sure isn’t very bright…

  7. 44 in a Row says:

    This is a slightly separate issue, but buying a used Blackberry can be trouble, too. A Blackberry needs to be linked to a BIS account in order to function with personal email, but if the previous owner forgets or doesn’t know that he has to manually disassociate his unit from his BIS account before he sells it, it’s a huge pain in the ass when you get it, try to register it, and get the “This PIN is already linked to a BIS account” message. Not malicious, but definitely annoying.

  8. muchenik says:

    @m1k3g: The problem arises from users that would default on the account then get another adult in the house to create a new account and activate the same box and repeat the cycle.

    Now since he is in a completely different location I do not see why they would care if he if the old card was defaulted.

    This didn’t really start springing up for tivo until they cut back on the unlimited one time charge boxes started to get phased out.

  9. MayorBee says:

    A lot of cell phone sellers (especially of Sprint phones) will not give out the ESN. They’re afraid of getting scammed. What people will do is take the ESN and call Sprint up and register the phone to their account. Then the phone is worthless to the seller. The would-be buyer waits a few days and files an insurance claim. They get a new (or refurbished) phone for $50 that’s under warranty.

  10. DarrenO says:

    @Pro-Pain: You’re wrong. The problem is that DirecTV no longer offers new Tivo models, they use their own branded DVR which just isn’t as good as a Tivo. That’s the reason I switched over to Comcast for television when we went HD, no HD Tivo on DirecTV meant one less customer. It’s not stupid to buy used Tivo gear on eBay, it is stupid however for DirecTV to not hook up a new customer even if he bought a box from a moron.

  11. mac-phisto says:

    @m1k3g: it’s not just dtv boxes – it can happen with cell phones also (particularly those operating on cdma or the older tdma networks), though typically that’s only for lost/stolen phones, not default accounts. you don’t have to worry about this with at&t or t-mobile (or any other gsm provider, for that matter).

    & it’s not just them being greedy. many satellite/cable subscribers don’t own their equipment – they lease it. what would stop me from defaulting on my account & selling my 4 boxes instead of returning them? nothing. that’s why companies red flag access devices (when they can).

  12. fostina1 says:

    i got a receiver at a yardsale for $10 for direct tv. i called them to activate it. i gave them the information and they said it was ok and that i would have to pay a $5/month rental fee for MY BOX THAT I OWN. needless to say IM NOT RENTING ANYTHING I OWN. and as soon as my contracts up good bye direct tv.

  13. Pro-Pain says:

    @DarrenO: You knew entirely TOO MUCH about all that. I have DirectTV. I find that there is no need to “Tivo” anything really because anything you could want to watch is played one thousand times in a row anyway…over and over again…guess I don’t like tv that much “shrugs”

  14. MeOhMy says:

    @fostina1: Are you sure it was a “Rental Fee” and not just the standard surcharge you have to pay for each extra receiver you have registered?

  15. dragonpup says:

    @fostina1: You are assuming the people you ‘bought’ that reciever from actually owned it.

    Buying cable boxes and satellite recievers is almost never in your favor because a lot of the time they are just ‘selling’ you something that they were renting themselves.

  16. fostina1 says:

    @Troy F.: i was told rental fee by the customer service rep.

    @dragonpup: i was willing to lose $10. i verified throught directtv that it was ok to use. i just dont wanna rent something i own.

  17. Joedragon says:

    @fostina1: @fostina1:
    and go to comcast they make you pay more per box.

  18. Bix says:


    Right, just because some networks constantly rerun shows, you shouldn’t get a DVR for all of the live and single-run shows?

    Umm, no.

  19. Orv says:

    This also happens with Shorewall firewalls. To access Shorewall’s website and get software updates (necessary both for bugfixes and if you need to reset the password) the device must be registered. Once the device is registered once, the only way to change the registration is to have the person who registered it previously do a transfer. A resold Shorewall is little more than a pretty paperweight unless you know the previous registrar and can get their cooperation.

  20. PølάrβǽЯ says:

    Apparently Mike didn’t do his homework. Yes, you DO need your own access card (either a new one or one that you previously used in a different box). However, I don’t see why he had a problem getting them to activate the box.

    I have three Tivo’s and a DirecTV DVR on my account, all of which were acquired USED from other people. I just had to either use the access card from an old receiver of mine that I was swapping out, or buy a new access card for the boxes I was adding. I have NEVER had DirecTV tell me I couldn’t activate a used box, and I have been a customer for 9 years and an installer for 4 years.

    @fostina1: “$5/month rental fee for MY BOX THAT I OWN

    It isn’t a rental fee, it is a mirroring fee to provide you with separate programming on an additional TV. Get digital cable, it works the same way. Additional digital cable boxes for different rooms are an additional $5 or so a month. Get an additional phone line from the phone company for a different room, it will be extra too. This isn’t new, and I don’t see why people think they should get extra services for free. Yes, the box IS yours, but the programming is DirecTV’s. Want programming? Pay for it.

  21. Tekneek says:

    DirecTV should not be linking equipment to accounts, just access cards.

    The reason somebody might buy a DirecTV unit with TiVo off of eBay is because you cannot get those new anymore. The DVRs they have that are new are not TiVos, and TiVo is the best DVR available. The only people who truly like the new DVRs are those that have never had a TiVo.

  22. cccdude says:

    I’m the OP.

    Some background – I’ve been a loyal DirectTV customer for about 5 years and I’ve been fairly happy with the service until now. But recently, my beloved Hughes SD-DVR40 TiVo-powered DVR started having some serious problems on the Satellite 2 input. Using standard trouble-shooting techniques, I tracked down the problem to the DVR itself. Cabling, dish, etc – all are still good. So, I hit Ebay and bought a used Hughes box that’s in good working order. Swap out the access card and I *thought* I’d be good to go.

    So I call DirectTV and find out:

    1.) You need to order a *replacement* card for $20. I was surprised, but it’s worth $20 to me to get both of my tuners working again, so I give the OK. Now we come to the kicker…

    2. “Oh sorry sir. I just checked the account status of that receiver. It’s tied to an account in Collections. It’s against policy to issue a new access card for it. The system won’t let me.” But, I explain, *MY* account is not in Collections. I have been a happy DTV customer for 5 years now. Why would there be a problem tying a piece of equipment to *MY* account when I make my payments promptly and on time??? “I’m sorry sir, but it’s policy and it doesn’t matter who you talk to, the answer will be the same. We can’t issue a new access card for any receiver that shows a defaulted account”.

    I think what bothers me the most is the validity of their “policy”. The former owner had to purchase the equipment in the past and then paid for the DirectTV service. If the account had problems, then you cut off service to that account. But the former owner technically OWNS the box independently of the service and should be able to sell it without a problem. As such, I think DirectTV should NOT be able to refuse to provide SERVICE to a privately owned receiver as long as it’s compatible with their system and it’s to be activated on an account in good standing. (I could see where it’d be a valid policy if it were DTV leased equipment)

    All this policy really does is penalize the long term DTV customer who is happy with their current setup and wants to avoid the new lease fees. Me thinks it’s all just a means to get people to “upgrade” to the leased DirectTV receivers.

    Regardless, I’m looking at other options at the moment.

  23. HeartBurnKid says:

    @mac-phisto: This is true of cable boxes, but not satellite receivers. DirecTV and Dish’s model is more like the cellphone companies, where they give you the equipment for free, and in exchange you sign up for a 1-year contract. The only difference is that DirecTV, at least, will waive the ETF if you return the equipment to them in good working order.

  24. tedyc03 says:

    Wait…how exactly would that conversation go?

    “Um, before I pay you I need to make sure you’re credit-worthy. I’ll need the serial numbers off the boxes please…”

    Anyone think that this is generally going to turn out well?

  25. kc2idf says:

    The advice holds for Dish Network equipment, also. Call them and have them run the serial number.

    OTOH, Dish Network receivers, unlike DirecTV ones, can be converted into FTA receivers with a little hacking.

  26. Difdi says:

    It’s not a bad idea to do this on ostensibly new electronics either. Make sure the serial number of what’s in the box matches what the store thinks is in the box. And do it before you leave the store, in front of the LP guy.

  27. backbroken says:

    @kc2idf: FTA?

  28. sarcastibitch says:

    I worked for a cable company in Canada and there was a similar policy on modems and cable terminals. It’s mostly in place so that if an account goes delinquent another adult in the house can’t just put it in their name and start over with the same hardware. Also it’s probably related to the fact that if customer X owes the cable company money and generates money by selling the hardware from the cable company he should use it to pay down the debt to the cable comapny.

    In a similar vein I’d seen addresses that were flagged because of delinquent accounts and the customers would have to prove to the company that they had just moved in (tenancy agreement/house purchase papers) before services could be set up.

  29. Pro-Pain says:

    @Bix: Um, YEAH. I bet you’re fat. Couch potato fat.

  30. fostina1 says:

    @aaron8301: i had basic cable $12/month in every room of my house for about 15 years with no extra charge. i dont see why some people wanna start paying for something weve been getting for free for years.

  31. DarrenO says:

    @Pro-Pain: DirecTV plays everything a thousand times in a row?? What are you talking about? I pretty much see the same channels on cable and I don’t see any programs repeated over and over again.

    If you want to say the quality of television overall is crap I’ll agree with you. I mainly use the Tivo to time-shift baseball games so I can watch them in less time.

  32. mac-phisto says:

    @HeartBurnKid: really? i just completed an 18-mo contract with them a few months ago & when i started looking into my options, they told me i’d have to return the boxes if i canceled or i’d get charged for the equipment.

    hmm. is it possible that someone at dtv doesn’t know what they’re talking about? nah.

  33. Tekneek says:

    I doubt anybody was ever given a FREE DirecTV TiVo unit. They hand out the non-TiVo DVRs like candy, but I don’t think they were ever giving away the TiVo units. The lowest price I ever saw was $79 and up from there.

  34. Floobtronics says:

    @m1k3g: Actually that’s not necessarily the case either. When we signed up for DTV about 5 years ago, we bought & paid for a D10 receiver as well as a DirecTiVo. When we cancelled our DTV account this past week (in favor of cheaper, nicer looking, and doesn’t go out in the rain FiOS TV), the rep confirmed to us that we owned our receivers free & clear, had no term commitment left, and would in fact be receiving a refund check for the 2 weeks of unused service we had left over.

    While it’s certainly possible (probable even) that the policies have changed over the past 5 years, it wasn’t always as you say.