Apple replaces broken iPhones - even if they're stolen

6 Mar 2012

There's nothing worse than having your phone stolen: your contacts, photos, data, all in someone else's hands. It's especially bad if it's a high-end smartphone, and even worse if it's an iPhone -- and not only because the handsets are so expensive.

Last week, PC Pro reader Simon wrote to us, explaining that his daughter Charlie's phone had been stolen three months ago. Since then, she's been locked in a battle with her insurance company to get a replacement. That firm, Protect My Bubble, has refused to pay out because Apple has already replaced the phone, with the identifying number (IMEI)  for the stolen device showing on the system as being "replaced".

That's because the stolen iPhone 4 has indeed been replaced -- but it wasn't given to Charlie. Three days after her phone was taken, someone -- presumably the thief -- took it to the Covent Garden Apple Store, saying it didn't work. As it was still under warranty, Apple's staff duly handed over a new phone. While that's excellent service for those with a cracked screen or malfunctioning handset, it's not so clever when the reason the phone isn't working is because it has been reported stolen and blocked.

Is anyone surprised that iPhone theft is so rampant when you are guaranteed to get a new one just by walking into an Apple store with your stolen, IMEI-blocked phone?

As Simon noted: "Apple replaced the phone even though it had been reported stolen and even though the person with the phone was not the registered owner. Apple has stated that it is its policy to replace iPhones if they are in warranty without questioning the identity or authenticity of ownership of the person with the phone. It even confirmed the exact time and date of the replacement and the identity of the Apple staff member who gave the replacement.

"Is anyone surprised that iPhone theft is so rampant when you are guaranteed to get a new one just by walking into an Apple store with your stolen, IMEI-blocked phone?"

The family has had no luck getting a replacement phone, or getting enough detail out of Apple to convince her insurance company it should pay out, leaving Charlie without a phone -- despite her very responsibly paying for insurance and reporting the theft immediately to the police and to Apple.

The Covent Garden store did meet with Charlie, but didn't manage to find a resolution. "We discussed what had happened at length and after I pointed out that I had informed them it had been stolen the day after the crime -- and two days before it had replaced the stolen phone -- it did actually admit that 'yes, in this case it does seem that this was our fault'," she noted.

And, as Simon points out, it leaves Apple holding Charlie's original phone, which is stolen property. "At no point did it become Scumbag Thief’s phone and at no point did it become Apple’s property," he points out. "The fact that Apple gave Scumbag a new phone for it is immaterial, it is still your property and you have every right to have it returned to you."

In a series of emails to Apple representatives -- all of which have gone unanswered -- Simon noted that a quick search revealed 470 new, unlocked iPhone 4 handsets for sale on eBay. "No doubt a fair number of these were free from your stores," he says.

This problem isn't new: reports abound online stretching back years, but Apple has refused to change its policy and is yet to return request for comment from PC Pro. (Update: We've since heard back from Apple, which stressed it couldn't comment on individual cases.)

It's a shame that Apple's trust in customers and solid service is being abused, but it's hardly a surprise. We can't sum it up any better than Simon, in an email to Apple we were shown: "I wonder just how much your mad policy is costing you, let alone your customers?"

Update: A day after this blog was posted, Apple contacted Simon and Charlie and will be replacing the missing handset with a new iPhone 4s.

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