I wanted to relay a recent bad experience I had with my local record store owner. Maybe some of you have had something similar happen in the past. I guess I'm just venting really, but hopefully this can serve as a cautionary tale for others about the things that can go horribly wrong between a customer and merchant.
I've been shopping at this particular store for the past 6 years or so. I haven't bought a lot of stuff there, but I still like to think of myself as a good customer. Mostly, I've picked up albums from the likes of Belle and Sebastian, Iron & Wine, Robyn Hitchcock and Luna. I've also picked up the occasional movie or TV show, and sometimes a random single by The Mills Brothers, Quincy Jones or Beck. The owner knows a bit about my tastes because I've actually told him quite a lot about my music preferences over the years. Like any good record store owner with a long-term customer, he's made some recommendations for me. I always found his suggestions rather prosaic and predictable, but basically on target. It was at least nice to know he was was trying to get to know me and my preferences.
I thought everything was fine until one day I had my credit card stolen. The joker who stole my card waltzed into this record shop and charged up almost a thousand dollars worth of stuff over the course of a single day. He told the owner he was buying the stuff for me. I would have thought the owner would know better because most of the stuff this joker bought was not to my taste at all. Without casting aspersions on anyone else's taste, I'm just not a Miley Cyrus and Glee kind of guy, and anyone who knows anything about my taste in music should know that. Weirder still, the joker also bought a bunch of 8-track tapes, even though the owner knows I don't own an 8-track player. But he never asked a single question, and just went ahead and charged the stuff. I guess he was happy to have the business. I know times are tough in the music retail biz, but I was under the impression that he was actually managing to do pretty well.
So anyway, my credit card company spots that there's something unusual going on, and I get a call from their fraud detection unit the very same day. I told them I had not authorized any of those purchases, and they disputed the charges for me.
Here's where things start to get really weird. After I disputed the charges, I guess the owner got pissed off at me or something (although the situation was obviously not my fault, and frankly he should have known something fishy was going on). In retribution, the record store owner breaks into my house and steals back a bunch of the music and all of the movies and TV shows I had bought from him in the past. Even more bizarre is that fact that he chooses to just steal the records, CDs and DVDs themselves, but leaves all the covers and album art in place so I don't even realize anything is missing until I decide I want to play one of the albums. So now a lot of the stuff I've bought over the years is gone, and as far as I can tell I have no way to get it back.
I've tried contacting the record store owner to resolve the issue, but he doesn't take my phone calls and won't answer my emails. When I show up at his store, the door is locked for me, even though everybody else can still come and go as they please. It's like I've been dropped into some weird record collector geek version of The Twilight Zone.
About now you're probably thinking I'm either pulling your leg or I've lost touch with reality because nothing so bizarre could possibly happen in the real world, right? Well, yes and no. You see, if you replace the words "record store owner" with "Apple iTunes" this is almost exactly what happened to me. Back when people primarily bought physical products from brick and mortar stores the kind of incident I describe would have been unthinkable. But as we move towards a virtual goods/e-tailer model, equivalent incidents are becoming more and more common.
Here is what really happened. Someone got access to my iTunes account, changed my account name and password, and proceeded to charge almost a thousand dollars worth of merchandise in a single day. They bought stuff I would never buy like Veggie Tales videos (a Christian themed children's cartoon) and Celine Dion albums. They also bought a number of iPhone apps, even though I don't own an iPhone (a fact that Apple knows better than anybody). My credit card company contacted me about the suspicious charges, and disputed them for me. When I contacted Apple about what happened they were totally unhelpful. Now they seem to have closed my iTunes account entirely, and I can no longer access any of the protected AAC music files, television shows or movies that I "purchased" from iTunes in the past. They are as good as gone. iTunes customer service does not respond to my emails inquiring about how to get my account reactivated. I cannot get through to anyone via phone, I just get a message directing me to their customer service website, and I can't really use that because as far as Apple is concerned, I don't have an account with them anymore.
As far as I have been able to gather, this is a widespread problem, so much so that Japanese Government has made an official inquiry with Apple about its billing practices. According to a story from MyFox New York, this a scam that is being used to funnel cash into a PayPal account or to a credit card (yeah, I don't know how that would work either, but then I'm not a genius cyber-criminal). However the scam works, it is apparently quite common, and suggests that there is a huge hole in Apple's security. In preparing this post I came across hundreds and hundreds of similar complaints from iTunes users who have had their accounts compromised. In fact, I found so many complaints from people who had the exact same thing happen to them that I had to stop looking, or I would have spent the rest of my life reading nearly identical tales of futility and frustration. Suffice to say my experience is not unique, and the problem is widespread.
Based on my experience, and what I have learned in its aftermath, I would strongly urge anyone with an iTunes account to remove their credit card information from their Apple iTunes account immediately. If you want to continue to do business with iTunes I recommend using pre-paid iTunes cards to fund your purchases, at least until Apple gets its security issues resolved. At the moment Apple does not admit there is a problem. In fact, the one person I managed to get on the phone at Apple informed me that iTunes was so ultra-super-secure that if my account was hacked it would be the first time it ever happened to anyone. The conversation reminded me of listening to one of those old Politburo spokesmen in 1982 saying "Premier Brezhnev is a healthy and vital Russian man and could never be ill," or Iranian President Ahmadinejad saying "there are no homosexuals in Iran," or, well you get the idea.
Fortunately, I only ever bought a relatively small amount of DRM protected iTunes tracks, and I upgraded many of the ones I did buy to DRM free iTunes plus tracks, which I can still access. I don't really care about the TV shows, and the movies were all downloads that came with DVD or Blu-Ray purchases, and I was unlikely to watch them on my iPod anyway. Nevertheless, I always felt like those things were "mine" when in fact they belonged to Apple all along and I was only allowed to play them at the pleasure of the corporation. I'm certainly glad that I'm not someone who downloaded a lot of music and movies from iTunes, or bought an Apple TV and elected to give Apple total control over my home entertainment experience. For me this incident has been little more than a minor inconvenience (albeit one that has been going on for three months now with no resolution in site), but I can imagine it being much worse for a different kind of media consumer.
Update: As of 06/16/10 my iTunes account appears to be fully functional again.