Friday, July 16, 2010

iTunes Again....

When I posted my iTunes story, I didn't go into too many specifics regarding my interaction with Apple Customer service. This was in part because I wanted to introduce the story within the fictional conceit that the incident involved a brick and mortar record store, but also because I didn't want the post to go on forever.

But there is one specific issue I wanted to share that I think sheds some light on what a sleazy outfit Apple has become. From what I can gather reading other stories from customers whose accounts were hacked this is an entirely typical practice on Apple's part, and I find it both extremely strange and unethical.

Here is a quote from one of the emails I sent to Apple customer service:
"It appears there is an outstanding balance of $36.96 on my iTunes account that my Credit Card company already rejected because they realized that the activity on my account was suspicious. Is it possible to remove this outstanding balance from my account? I understand that charges already made cannot be removed from my account, and have already taken that issue up with my credit card company."
Keep in mind, the $36.96 in question was for an order placed by the person who hacked into my account, but it was never fulfilled because my credit card company rejected the charge after detecting a fraudulent activity pattern on my account. Here is Apple's response:
"Hey Willis,

This is Xxxxx from Apple. You're very welcome. I am glad that I could provide you with some helpful information. Unfortunately, I cannot refund you or do anything with the order until it is paid for. If the item stays delinquent this would prevent you from making any purchases. I would recommend paying for the order. Once the order is paid for, I can refund you for the purchase."
This made absolutely no sense to me. First of all, the customer service rep had already explained to me she could not refund charges already made to my account, and if I wanted the nearly $1,000 already charged to my account back I would have to take it up with my credit card company. Now she was telling me she could refund a transaction, but I had to pay for it first. Notice the language she uses here too: the item was "delinquent" and if not paid for I would no longer be welcome as an iTunes customer. What she didn't mention was that Apple had also frozen my account so that I was unable to access many of my previous music and video purchases.

Needless to say, I was not eager to authorize a fraudulent transaction with no real guarantee Apple would refund it. At the time I didn't want to get into a long, drawn out email exchange on the issue, but I wish now I had asked her more questions to get a full articulation of Apple's policy. Instead, I replied:
"I will have to wait until my credit card provider sends me a new card before I can update the information. Once I get the new card I will update the information, and then contact you again about getting the purchase refunded."
When I received my new credit card I did not immediately update my information with iTunes. Eventually I decided that paying the $36.96 would be worth it to get access to my previous purchases back. Once I provided my new billing information, Apple immediately charged the $36.96 to my credit card. Unfortunately, when I emailed them about refunding the transaction I never received a response. Once again, I was forced to go to my credit card company to get the transaction canceled. Worse, despite paying the "delinquent" charge, my iTunes account remained locked for over a month afterward.

I continue to be shocked at how widespread the iTunes problem appears to be. One guy posted his experience on his blog, and got 258 responses, most of them from readers whose iTunes accounts were also hacked. One reader posted a reply he received from Apple that I found very revealing. (Because this was posted by someone else, I cannot verify the authenticity of this response, but it is entirely consistent in tone and content with my correspondence with Apple, as well as that of other Apple customer correspondence I have seen.)

"Unfortunately I am unable to remove or credit the purchase in question I have tried and there is no way to remove it from the account. You do have two options available to use with I will go over with you below. The first option is to simply enter a valid credit card into the account and pay for the outstanding order. Then I will refund the order back to you so you don’t have to pay for the order in question. This is the simplest way to keep your account active and able to update applications and use the iTunes Store.

The second option if you still refuse to pay for the outstanding order in question is to create a new account with iTunes. You will need to create a new account and provide complete billing information including providing a valid credit card. Then after creating the account you can continue to use the account. Do understand that all CMA, iTunes+ offers and applications updates will not be on this new account. You will need to repurchase the applications for them to update with the new account. Music purchases from the old account will not work with the new account.

So as you can see both choices do choices to make and I would honestly just pay for the outstanding order so you can continue to use the account just like before. You can take all the time you want to decide on what you want to do. I will be looking forward to hearing from you soon."
This is the clearest articulation I have seen of this very simple fact: If your iTunes account is hacked, Apple will be more than happy to hold your previous purchases hostage until you agree to pay them an additional sum. I am reminded of the old Woody Guthrie lyric, "Some will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen." Today Woody would have to change his fountain pen to a keyboard, which is unfortunately far less poetic. Pretty Boy Floyd where have you gone?

Given how unfriendly U.S. law is to consumers, I have little doubt that what Apple is doing here is totally legal. But, legal or otherwise, I consider it unethical and downright sleazy. Anyway, if you want to continue doing business with Apple's iTunes store, you should be aware of the tough road you have ahead of you if you ever have a problem with your account.

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