I’ve always been a proponent of Apple’s refurbished products and there are no shortage of forum members extolling the virtues of Apple’s iPhone replacement program. Most have had great success, with Apple providing them with an iPhone that looks new. If you had a minor scratch on your non-working iPhone, there’s a bonus in picking up a replacement. My experience today at the Genius Bar at the Apple Store in Roosevelt Field, NY has forever changed my opinion of their customer service and why you can no longer trust Apple’s iPhone Replacement Program.

Despite being a multiple iPhone household, my first brush with the Genius bar occurred roughly 4 months ago on May 11th when my wife’s iPhone 4 had an issue with her microphone. She could hear callers, but they could not hear her. This was a hardware issue, one that Apple had a history of covering, despite being out of warranty. That policy had changed along with the introduction of Apple Care Plus, which retails for $99. This extends your coverage and also covers you against various mishaps. My iPhone was out of warranty, so Apple did not owe me a free replacement. For better or worse, Apple’s program was no different than how most companies handle products out of warranty. My options were to re-up for a new 2-year contract and purchase a new iPhone 4S or pay $149 for a replacement iPhone, which would have no impact on my wife’s current ‘out of contract’ status. I opted for the $149 option. This would provide me with what I understood was an iPhone that was “as good as new”. That would be sufficient to get her to September, at which point resale on an iPhone 4 could defer the cost of the replacement. Fair enough or so I thought.

Yesterday, her iPhone was stuck in a boot cycle and I was lucky enough to get it to display ‘Connect to iTunes’. I advised her that any data which had not been backed up would be lost. I charged it for a good five hours and then attempted to factory restore it to iOS 5.1. My attempts were met with a nasty ‘2001’ error. A relatively new iPhone, I immediately scheduled a Genius appointment for this morning. At the time, I was unaware of Apple’s warranty on replacement phones. Truth be told, I was hoping that flexibility I heard so much about would apply to my situation, since it was a relatively short time-frame since I was leaving the Roosevelt Field Apple Store with this iPhone.

I arrived late for my 9:40 appointment and was quickly seated and greeted by Lillian. I explained what happened, then helped her remove my wife’s iPhone case. Under the snap case was the original plastic from when we received the iPhone. I’m a stickler for keeping iPhones in tip-top shape. Nobody gets by without a case and it’s surprising that I hadn’t put a screen protector on her iPhone. I must be slipping. Lillian took the iPhone and went in back for roughly 20 minutes. She returned and pretty much come to the same conclusion to what I had surmised from my troubleshooting. This was not a software issue. What followed took me by complete and utter surprise.

“We cannot service this iPhone”, said Lillian. She continued, “It’s been tampered with and we have no way of retrieving the serial number.”

I proceeded to inform her of the history of this particular iPhone, at least post-May 2012. My wife doesn’t install iOS updates. She rarely, if ever, properly backs up her iPhone and installation of apps is a rarity. You could say she fits the role of your semi-typical iPhone user. Lucky for her, she has me on staff. I’m fairly proficient at troubleshooting software problems and that’s the extent of my abilities. I’ve never come in contact with a pentalobe screwdriver and the closest I’ve gotten to an iPhone repair was linking out to a teardown in a blog post. If there is a hardware problem, then it’s time for a trip to the Apple Store and they’ll make things right, provided we as customers take care of our phones. I was wrong.

“There is absolutely no way that either myself or my wife had anything to do with anything that’s gone awry with the internals of this iPhone”, I said.

I argued that it was a refurbished iPhone and perhaps there was an issue with quality control. Lillian would not back down from her assertions that somehow it was tampered with between the date of purchase and today’s Genius bar appointment.  Unless my 10 month old is handy with pentalobe screwdrivers, that didn’t happen. Shocked, amazed. I kept my cool, but was less than thrilled with where this conversation had been going. I’m paraphrasing, but Lillian went on to describe what she had found.

“We were unable to scan the serial number, it wasn’t smooth and there were fingerprints. I also found a screw which had been lodged next to the power button. This is inconsistent with new iPhones.”

Hey Lillian, this isn’t a new iPhone. We bought it here, just 4 months ago and it is refurbished. Lillian quickly corrected me, saying they are new iPhones and not refurbished. I didn’t think it would curry any favor, but I did play the ‘I cannot wait to write about this on my iPhone blog’ card. This was less about getting my way and more about letting them know that I had an outlet to inform others of the quality control of these ‘new iPhones’. This probably did more harm, as it appeared as if my Genius had an “aha” moment. He writes for a iPhone blog, he must a thief. Let’s face it, that is exactly what they were alleging this morning.

“I’m sorry, but we are not able to service this iPhone. I should have refused service initially upon my findings”, said Lillain.

This went on for five minutes or more, when she took the iPhone again. I was rooting for Lillian, because I wanted to receive an apology and perhaps change the perception among Geniuses that these phones weren’t susceptible to quality control issues. Gone for roughly 15 minutes, she returned and gave me the broken iPhone. She left once again, only to return with Myra. This could only mean one thing. I was the irate, in-the-wrong customer that required back-up.

“Your iPhone is out of warranty. We were able to find your serial number on the back of the SIM card tray, although we cannot use this as a valid method of retrieving serial numbers.”

Now they were inferring that I was a customer who:

  • Had my iPhone replaced 4 months ago for a legitimate hardware issue
  • Purchased a broken iPhone
  • Did something to the internals to where they could not scan the serial number
  • Swapped my wife’s SIM card tray from the replacement iPhone with the broken iPhone

Myra informed me that the SIM card tray swap is the newest trick among thieves.

Before I left for the Apple Store today, I advised my wife that should this be out of warranty, we weren’t going to pay an additional $149. Not only because we’re less than a month away from a new iPhone, but also out of principal. Refurbished, Replacement, Remanufactured. Whatever they want to call it, they sell these phones as if they were new, as Lillian continuously asserted during our conversation. These are new phones.

The discussion at this point had ran it’s course. My options were to call Apple Care and spin my wheels some more or simply buy a new phone. I made one last ditch effort to restore my good name, suggesting they connect this iPhone to XCode. I was met with blank stares. If this sort of thing happened with another company, I’d bring my business elsewhere. Not an option. But I wasn’t done…

There was something bigger on my agenda at this point then getting my broken iPhone replaced. Information normally flows from behind the counter, but it was time to turn the tables. Surely Geniuses can be taught something new, right?

I informed both of my now attentive geniuses that before I showed up, my mind was already made up regarding my unwillingness to part with another $150. I then proceeded to advise them that perhaps they needed to think differently about the quality control of their replacement iPhones. I provided them with a scenario of a typical Apple customer who was under contract and under warranty. That person would be out of luck, to no fault of their own. I’ll admit, I did get a little preachy, but it was warranted. The assertions were clear – they felt that I was at the Genius Bar attempting to pull one over on them.

Sometimes being in the right isn’t enough. When your character is attacked, it’s not a great feeling. For me, it was worse than not having my iPhone repaired. I’m not going to do anything crazy like swear myself off iPhones, but I can tell you one thing. I will no longer trust Apple’s iPhone Replacement Program.