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I recently bought a new laptop from a third-party seller on new egg. The seller states that it is "upgraded": "*We sell computers with upgraded configurations. If the computer has been modified (as listed above), then the manufacturer box was opened for testing and inspection and to install the upgrades according to the specifications as advertised."

Upon opening the computer, I see that an account has already been created, named "Aspire 5" (it's an acer aspire). I am used to having to go through the rigmarole of setting up a Microsoft account on a new PC so that struck me as odd. I decided to wipe the hard drive and reset the OS (windows 10 Pro).

Upon attempting this, I got the "There was a problem when resetting your PC. No changes were made". I tried a bunch of troubleshooting tips I found online to no avail. So I now want to know if it is safe to use the PC. I want to use this computer for financial accounts (banking, and cryptocurrency) so that is my biggest concern. I also intend to do work (programming) on the laptop but less concerned about that.

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    You can do a clean install by creating a bootable USB. Download from here: microsoft.com/en-us/software-download/windows10 HOWEVER, I would contact the 3rd party seller before you do anything.
    – pcalkins
    Dec 3, 2021 at 20:31
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    thank you. Why? to see what my refund options are? also how concerned should I be about monkey business, realistically?
    – cershif
    Dec 3, 2021 at 20:35
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    I once bought an old Dell where the motherboard was sort of tied in to the OS. I couldn't just re-install an OS on that particular machine. (which meant I had to hack the user-password on it to add a user... probably not the case here, but best to check...) I don't really know if an existing user account is anything to worry about, but you should at least have access to the admin account on that machine. You might also contact Acer to see what they say.
    – pcalkins
    Dec 3, 2021 at 22:05
  • @pcalkins I do have access to the admin account, but frankly everyone here is making me nervous (which I guess is what happens anytime you ask about computer security because the true answer is nothing is ever "safe!!"). I may just go with an MSI directly from newegg as it seems like the safest bet.
    – cershif
    Dec 4, 2021 at 21:30
  • @pcalkins I've learned the hard way that contacting the manufacturer almost never does anything. I can pretty much predict the call: A lot of being put on hold, some weird account set up which I'll never use again and finally someone telling me that since this is modified hardware not bought directly from them, there is nothing they can do.
    – cershif
    Dec 4, 2021 at 21:32

2 Answers 2

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It's definitely sketchy of the seller to sell a "new" computer that is not in OOBE (out of box experience) configuration. Frankly I would have avoided a seller that opens the physical hardware, unless they're well-known and trusted, for anything I wanted to use for really sensitive stuff.

With that said, you can definitely reset or (better yet) fully reinstall the OS. You may or may not need to extract the license key first; it can be stored in the firmware but if one of the "upgraded" things was the OS license then the one stored in the firmware might be Home edition instead. If the seller didn't provide the license key directly (on e.g. a sticker on the laptop, or separately) you might need to extract it from the registry, for which there exists software but I'm not sure what the best tool is.

Once you have the license key (or are willing to trust that it's in the firmware / are willing to buy a new one if it's not), download the install media from https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/software-download/windows10 and follow the steps to create a bootable image. I recommend deleting all existing disk partitions and letting the installer re-create the partition scheme for you; this will erase the OEM/seller's recovery partition but hey, if it doesn't work then it's just wasted space.

Note that you might need to download drivers - potentially a lot of drivers, if there's a lot of cutting-edge hardware - from the websites of the manufacturers of the hardware (you can probably get many of them from Acer, though if different hardware was added you might need to look elsewhere too). Make sure you have a machine you can do that on, or do it before reinstalling the OS (and store them on external media); it's entirely possible for the network driver to be missing (very rare these days, but possible!)


Now, with all that said: while it is pretty unlikely there's anything maliciously added to your machine, there's definitely more reason for concern than if you'd bought the machine sealed from Acer. Opening the box means the seller could have added malicious hardware (such as a physical keylogger, or any other hardware implant that can e.g. sit in an M.2 slot from which it may have direct memory access). They also could have installed modified firmware, which will survive a disk wipe / OS reinstall. Even if the firmware itself is stock, they could have configured it in various ways; UEFI allows for storing lots of custom data, and while usually this is things like "the Windows license key", it can also be entire UEFI programs or drivers ("OEMs can add UEFI applications that aid in manufacturing and servicing the device.", "Lenovo Caught Using Rootkit to Secretly Install Unremovable Software").

Again, realistically, the danger is quite low; the expected benefit from malicious modifications would need to be quite substantial to exceed the risk of discovery and legal action. But there is more risk (especially if the third-party seller is some tiny, unknown fly-by-night business with no established reputation or meaningful wealth to be at risk from legal action) than with a sealed box directly from a trusted OEM (although OEMs can, and have, abused their own ability to pre-install stuff that's arguably malware; see the link above about Lenovo).

As such, asking "is it safe" is very hard to answer. Nothing is 100% safe. Is it as safe as an unmodified, sealed machine? No, but maybe not much less so. It is safe enough? Maybe, but that's hard to tell. A clean install of the OS may help. Wiping and re-installing the UEFI also might help, but I'm not actually sure if that removes the customizations and it could also introduce problems if it does.

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  • Thank you very much. Given all of this info, I am going to just return it and spring for a new one. I'm not well versed enough in this stuff to reinstall the OS with out getting clammy hands.
    – cershif
    Dec 4, 2021 at 21:00
  • If it is the case that it is a bad idea to trust reconfigured laptops, how can I get a laptop with the specs I'd like? Ideally 16 GB, quad-core, 2.5+ GHz, Windows. Sorry if this is off topic, but most out of the box computers don't come with these specs, so not sure where I would go to purchase this, safely.
    – cershif
    Dec 4, 2021 at 21:09
  • It's OT but I don't mind giving you a few tips (if you want to discuss them, this is not the place). First of all, those are very, very common specs; if you go on a retail site such as Newegg and use their search and filter tools you can find hundreds of brand new laptops with those specs (widely varying in price and other specs/features, and remember that "2.5GHz" doesn't mean as much in some chips as others). You can also get a customized laptop from many OEMs, both giants like HP and niche companies like Framework will let you customize many aspects of a new machine.
    – CBHacking
    Dec 5, 2021 at 21:52
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Not safe, if its modified where you can't simply reset or restore to factory settings, then something is not right. Also, if something ever did happen to the device, you would have no way to reset it.

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