Friday, May 21, 2010

The Problem With Today's Record Store

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.


Pete Bilderback said...

Someone emailed me to recommend that I back up my iTunes library to an external hard drive in the future. This is excellent advise in general, but does not address the problem I'm having.

To be clear, the problem was not that I lost the files due to a hard drive failure. The files are all still on my hard drive (and on my backup hard drive) and visible in my iTunes library.

The problem is that because of the DRM encoding on the files, I can no longer play them because Apple has disabled my iTunes account. If I attempt to play one of these files, iTunes prompts me to enter my iTunes password. It then tells me that either my user name or password are incorrect. All efforts to get Apple to address this problem to date have failed.

If anyone has managed to rectify a similar situation, I'd love to hear how. I've pretty much given up at this point, and only posted on the issue to warn my readers about what I regard as a very significant security problem with iTunes. Trust me, you do not want the same thing to happen to you.

Doug said...

Sorry to hear this. Excellent points that user of iTunes should be aware of.

I have an iPod and do use iTunes to keep track of my library, but most of that is ripped from CDs or downloaded from non-DRM sites (legit ones, like eMusic or occasionally Amazon). When I've downloaded DRM stuff from iTunes, I've generally burned those tracks to a CD (converting them to the format for CD players), not so much that I'd likely ever listen to that CD, but so I could then rip those back as regular mp3's if I ever needed to get them out of that restriction. (I'm not saying that's the only way to get around that, merely the obvious one I did.) At the time it was merely out of a vague, I'm-not-sure-I-completely-trust Apple sense, and a belief that if I bought it I should be able to put it wherever I wanted (for my own legal use only). After I got a new computer and re-imported my library on it and realized that the stuff that was still in the DRM format wouldn't play until I'd logged in, I felt my paranoia mildly justified. Not that I gave up on iTunes (as it was damn convenient), but I knew what it was: Not something that actually cared about me.

I'd also grasped that it was best to use the gift cards for purchases when I was doing that through iTunes. Using a credit card online is scary enough, but I knew that even if no one got my account I could still rack up some bills if I wasn't careful; the gift cards were a check on myself and protection against quasi-hacking.

Alas, I have nothing to offer regarding a resolution, but I do empathize with your predicament. It underscores the real kicker:
First you're violated and then you're screwed.

Pete Bilderback said...

Thanks Doug. Funny, I hadn't even thought of it, but I did rip CDs of at least some of those albums. I never re-imported because I realized it would violate the terms of my iTunes agreement (I have become such a goody-two-shoes in my old age it is pathetic--whatever happened to sticking it to the man?).

eMusic is a much better service than iTunes. I've been a member there for years, and have often put my account on hold for months and months. Nevertheless, because their tracks have always been DRM free, I've always been able to play them. Also, I can always re-download anything I've bought, which is nice.

I really haven't bought much from iTunes over the years, so it doesn't effect very much music, it's more just the principle for me than anything.

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I can't be sympathetic.

You should have bought those records at your local record store in the first place.

Not only should people remove their card details, they should also stop buying 'stuff' via iTunes, get off the couch and do some real life social networking and local economy support by buying from a physical retailer of music.

Don't get me wrong, what happened to you sucks.

That wouldn't have happened if... but I've already said that...

Phil M said...

I agree in a large part, except for where you claim that the ITMS should have known better than to sell you 'x' or 'y' as you would have never wanted that.

If it really *was* a guy you had been buying from for years, fair enough. But you can't expect a system that serves millions of tracks to do the same.

Where would it stop? Could I not buy "Glee" to watch with my girlfriend because I had previously only downloaded "24" or "the Shield?"

Personal responsibility has to come into play when protecting your details; you can't expect everyone else to 'have your back.'

On a limb with Claudia said...

I had a similar thing happen to me at Napster. (My computer caught a Russian Trojan and in the 2x reformating I lost access to my digital music.) I hadn't bought a lot of music, but we didn't have ton of money. And that was that for me and digital music. If I want music now, I buy the CD. Period

This is about digital rights. These types of situations are the reason Doctorow and Lessig put together the creative commons.

The problem is that when you buy anything digitally, you don't actually own it. You're only borrowing it until they decide to take it back. Sucks but it's true.

Because this thing happened with Napster all those years ago, I don't have an iTunes account. But I do have a good relationship with my local used CD stores and! ;)

Simon said...

I think the title of this article is poor, a real indie record store owner would know if someone was trying it on with your card. Computers on the other hand have no emotion and also a real record store owner would have been more spot on with less obvious things (like what iTunes suggests) as time went on.

Sorry you got hacked though. Can't imagine a real record store owner breaking into your house either

Lawrie said...

In response to Anonymous:

You can't be sympathetic because, depsite the fact that Peter paid for these tracks with his own money, he didn't go to a physical shop and buy physical copies, and therefore should be sneered at?

I am a massive advocate for owning physical releases, but you're basically spouting the stoic old-world industry line: digital music is killing 'real' music and 'real' record stores.

"My uncle was a postman, and the fact that you've sent emails in the past means you've put him out of a job, you bastard."

That's a lesson in how you can't really pick and choose your digital economy arguments to suit your needs, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

A lot of people not being sympathetic here. I cannot understand the legislation nowadays that allows Apple to do this. Personal accountability: YES but expecting someone to monitor their own online credit card transactions is impossible. That's part of Apple's service and part of the service supplied by the credit card company (who did a good job by notifying him in this case) and the direct bank. You can't expect a credit card holder to take that responsibility.
I agree that this is a hole in Apple's security: When I had my card skimmed online I was told they bought "stuff" with just the 16-digit number and did not need my name, expiry dat, address or security code...I asked why this was the case and they said it was because "some sites dont require it"....Apple do and yet the security is still broken? By the way AS FOR SIMONS COMMENT: "Can't imagine a real record store owner breaking into your house either"...Have you every heard of an analogy???

Pete Bilderback said...

Thanks folks for all the great comments. There are some very good points being raised that I will address in detail later. I would have worked some of the issues being raised into the original post, but I thought it was long enough already. It's good to see that I've provoked some responses even if some disagree with me or are not sympathetic.

On the issue of sympathy...I'm not asking for any. I hope people will save their sympathy for folks with real problems. I was more looking to raise awareness and provoke thought than to complain. It seems like I've accomplished that goal, so I'm happy. More later...

@luke_tweets said...

I've had a similar issue.

Although no where near as bad.

An ipod touch software error (Apple error) caused it to lock up and required fully formatting.

So I lost a lot of valuable media.

I contacted Apple they were 'Only too pleased to help' and offered me the items for download again.

But I notcied at they left out around £30 of media.

I caontacted them and they said there is nothing they are willing to do and offered me 3 song credits adding to around £1.50.

I explained this was an insult and it continued until today when I got this email....

"Since all information regarding this matter have been provided, further emails concerning this issue will not receive a response. Thank you for your understanding.

Best Regards,

iTunes Store Senior Advisor

Apple stating that they will ignore further contact on this issue although they owe me alot of money.

It's left me with a sour taste in my mouth and questioning whether I want them to have more of my money.

Pete Bilderback said...

Luke, sorry to hear about your experience. That does indeed sound frustrating.

For those who are interested, I posted some follow up thoughts spurred in part by the many comments this post received.