The woman who staged a highly-visible protest outside the ABQ Uptown (NM) Apple retail store last month over her stolen iPhone is a veteran protester who seems to be the victim of two long-standing Apple sales and service policies that have generated previous customer complaints. Jeanne Pahls, 53, led the group of six protesters and carried a lime-green sign proclaiming, “Apple sell used iPhones as new” and “Apple helps thieves steal iPhones.” In a sometimes-confusing complaint to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), Pahls said that Apple employees did not inform her that she was purchasing a used iPhone last December, one that had been purchased and returned earlier in the day by another customer. She also complained that later, when the stolen iPhone was presented at the Genius Bar for service, staffers replaced the phone, “no questions asked,” instead of notifying her or returning it to her.
The key elements of Pahls’ complaints hinge on two long-standing Apple policies. First, under certain circumstances a returned product may be resold to another person as “new” without notifying the customer. In fact, iOS devices under warranty are routinely swapped for a “new” device, but one that is refurbished, and not factory-new. Second, Genius Bar personnel do not determine if a product presented to them for service has been reported to police as stolen. In fact, there is no routine method for employees of any retail store to determine if returned merchandise has been stolen.
The latter policy in particular has been the subject of several recent Apple customer complaints. In some cases iPhone owners have received email from the Genius Bar informing them that their repaired iPhone is ready for pick-up. They later learned that the actual thief or a third-party had taken the stolen iPhone to the Genius Bar for service. In many cases, the person with the stolen iPhone has been given a replacement phone, effectively “laundering” the stolen handset. In these cases, Apple’s policy has been to neither notify the original owner nor to return the iPhone to them.
An agreement between the major cellular carriers and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier this year will eventually result in a consolidated database of stolen handsets that would permanently disable the phones on any cellular network. This “kill” capability is expected to significantly reduce the usefulness of stolen cellular phones, thereby reducing the incentive for criminals to steal the devices. However, that database won’t be ready until next year at the earliest.
Protest & Aftermath
As for Pahls and her June 12th protest, five other friends and acquaintances from previous political marches joined her to carry signs protesting Apple’s corporate policies. Their action drew the attention of representatives from Simon Property Group, L.P., the mall management, who then called Albuquerque police. Officers and a supervisor attempted to convince Pahls to leave the property, but she refused, saying she would accept being arrested.
While Pahls protested about her own situation, the other protesters in the group held signs that spotlighted Apple’s offshore and tax-free assets, and working conditions at FoxConn manufacturing plants in China.
Despite Pahls’ reluctance to leave, after mall management issued her a warning letter—and at least one TV station had taped a report about the protest—Pahls and the protesters left without incident.
Before her protest Pahls had called an AppleCare representative, who revealed that the iPhone was currently registered to someone else, and then declined to provide any further information. “It was as if I was suspected of stealing the phone myself or selling it and then reporting it stolen,” Pahls wrote to the BBB.
She also had gone to the ABQ Uptown retail store, but received the same silent treatment from staffers there. They instructed her to have the handling police officer call them, and that officer was eventually put in contact with Apple’s security team.
Both an Albuquerque police detective and ABQ Uptown staffers confirmed to Pahls that on December 9, 2011 a woman had originally purchased the iPhone Pahls later bought, along with two other iPhones. In the afternoon, that woman returned all the iPhones to the store. That same evening, Pahls arrived to purchase a new iPhone to replace one that had just been stolen. Pahls later identified the first buyer, called her and exchanged information about the incident.
“The phone I bought was presented to me as a new, unused phone,” she wrote the BBB. “I do not remember consenting to being given a refurbished phone, I thought my phone was new.” Pahls says she registered the iPhone in the presence of store employees, although Apple corporate security later told the police detective that Pahls had not registered the phone. It’s not clear what “registration” means in the context of Pahls’ complaint—registered with AppleCare or activated on a cellular network via iTunes, or both.
“Why was I treated as a non-owner of the phone when I had the receipt for it?” Pahls asked in her complaint. “Why does Apple reregister phones, no questions asked? Why doesn’t Apple report serial numbers of reregistered phones to the police?”
Pahls concluded her complaint by writing, “I have been a several times over computer customer of Apple. It seems to me that I deserved to be told the truth from every Apple employee, deserved to be sold a new iPhone since I was told it was new, deserve policies that will hinder, not help, phone theft, and deserved to be treated as the owner rather than a suspected thief of my own phone.”
Pahls’ complaint with the BBB is still pending. Typically the Bureau attempts to mediate a solution between the complainant and involved business. However, the Bureau has no authority or method of imposing a disposition for its complaints.
Pahls has been on the protest lines before. She is one plaintiff in a long-running lawsuit against Bernalillo County, the city of Albuquerque and its police department over the handling of protesters during a 2007 visit by then-President George W. Bush. The plaintiffs claim they were not allowed into a designated viewing area when Bush visited a local residence for a fund-raising event. Instead, the lawsuit states, the anti-Bush group was shuffled off to a location “at least 150 yards away from the fundraiser site.” The lawsuit claims violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and is still pending in U.S. District Court.
Read a TV news report about Pahls’ Apple store protest, and download (pdf) the warning letter issued to Pahls by the mall management. Also download (pdf) the complaint that Pahls submitted to the Better Business Bureau.
Update: On the day this story was posted, it was revealed that a suspect in the recent burglary of the Steve Jobs family home in Palo Alto (N. Calif.) had been arrested, based on information obtained when a stolen iMac and iPads connected to Apple’s iTunes servers.E-mail this story