Apple locked me out of its walled garden. It was a nightmare

On the outside looking in.
On the outside looking in.
Image: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Technology has always been a huge part of my life, but I recently was forced to find out what happens when the technology you’ve built your life around is suddenly taken away from you.

A few months ago, I purchased an iTunes gift card off of a popular discount website. This is something I’ve done for years to manage my spending on the platform—it also helps my partner and me buy things for one shared iTunes account. I’ve been buying gift cards every so often, particularly during sale periods, when retailers sell iTunes and App Store gift cards at a discount.

When I received the card and loaded it into my iTunes account, I purchased some music over the next few days, as I’ve often done since my first iTunes purchase in 2005. I bought a few songs, streamed a new movie, and marveled at the magic of Apple’s seamless integration of hardware and services. Or so I thought.

Screenshot from iTunes showing I was locked out of my account.
Screenshot from iTunes showing I was locked out of my account.
Image: luke kurtis

About a week after I redeemed the gift card, I noticed my iTunes account wasn’t working. When I tried to log in, it said my account was locked. I searched online for help, but I couldn’t find a solution. I called up Apple support. As soon as I got an agent on the phone I was immediately shuffled off to a senior representative, which is a bit unusual. I’ve worked with Apple support countless times both for work and for personal devices, and normally you’re only escalated to a senior rep when the first line of defense can’t resolve your issue. The senior agent informed me my account had been locked because I’d used a fraudulent gift card. 

Shocked, I explained how I’d obtained the card, thinking I’d made a legitimate purchase, and offered Apple proof of my purchase. The agent told me that wasn’t necessary. “I’m looking at your account and can clearly see you are a dedicated customer and that you’ve been the victim of a scam,” she said, adding she’d spoken to at least two other customers experiencing the same issue. Apparently all she had to do was to escalate this to Apple’s internal security team who, because she had vetted my account, would re-enable everything within 24 hours. She stressed that if that did not happen to get back in touch with her and she’d work with me on the next steps to get it taken care of. Great. 

Except that after 24 hours, there had been no word. Even after a few days, the agent was nowhere to be found, even after I emailed her directly. I ended up calling back into the main support line to start with a new agent who, again, shuffled me over to a senior agent right away. This Senior Agent #2 was not as supportive as the first, and gave me information that contradicted Senior Agent #1: “Your account has been permanently disabled,” he said. “There is nothing else you can do, there is no escalation path.”

When I asked for an explanation as to why, all he would say is, “See the terms and conditions.”  

The whole ordeal felt unfair, as though Apple were treating me like a criminal.  

I started to realize just how far-reaching the effects of Apple disabling my account were. One of the things I love about Apple’s ecosystem is that I’ve built my media collection on iTunes, and can access it from any of my Apple devices. My partner and I have owned numerous iPods, iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, iMacs, Apple Watches, Apple TVs, and even a HomePod, over the years. Apple plays a big part in my professional life too: I’m the IT manager for Quartz, and we use Apple hardware and publish on Apple platforms.

But when Apple locked my account, all of my devices became virtually unusable. At first, it seemed like a mild inconvenience, but I soon found out how many apps on my iOS and Mac devices couldn’t be updated, not to mention how I couldn’t download anything new. When I had to take a trip for a family emergency, the JetBlue app wouldn’t let me access my boarding pass, saying I had to update the app to use it. It was the first time I’d flown with a paper boarding pass in years. I couldn’t even pass time on the flight playing Animal Crossing on my phone, because I got a similar error message when I opened the game. 

Screenshots showing how I could not use the JetBlue or Animal Crossing apps at all because they could not be updated since Apple locked my account.
Screenshots showing how I could not use the JetBlue or Animal Crossing apps at all because they could not be updated since Apple locked my account.
Image: luke kurtis

I couldn’t use my HomePod to stream anything from my vast music collection I’d spent 15 years building; I couldn’t watch purchased movies or shows on my Apple TV; and I couldn’t download apps needed for my work at Quartz. As we anticipated the July 4th holiday in a team meeting, a manager recommended we all uninstall Slack for the holiday to truly disconnect and enjoy some time away from work. I wanted to, but I knew that if I did, I wouldn’t be able to reinstall it.

To add insult to injury, Apple even sent an email saying my pre-order of Madonna’s Madame X album was available for download.

I wasn’t prepared to give up on 15 years of purchases that easily. I continued to reach out to Apple support, and presented my case to Senior Agent #3, who, like Senior Agent #1, realized I was a loyal customer who had been unlucky. He put in an appeal to have my account reviewed again, but it was denied. Eventually, I got to Senior Agent #4, who went above and beyond, this time asking me to provide documentation. I sent over everything I had. The agent went to bat for me, making the case to Apple’s security team, but, ultimately, the request was denied again and, apparently, they told him to stop pursuing the case. Even after all this, the only reason I was given was, “See the terms and conditions.” 

During this time I’d requested a copy of my personal data from Apple. I wanted to quantify exactly how much money I’d put into its services, and the total came out to around $15,000. If I add up the amount spent on Apple hardware over the years, that number would balloon in size. Quantifying my loss this way made me realize just how much trust I’d had in Apple. 

Out of other obvious options, I decided to email Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, knowing he occasionally responded to customers’ emails. I also forwarded my note to my Apple sales rep for Quartz—who I’d been keeping informed during this process—to see if there was any way he could route it internally. I never thought I would have to call on a professional relationship in this way. 

I never got a personal response from Cook, but it seems my letter did spurn action: I’m happy to say my account was re-enabled soon after. The company explained to me that a number of gift cards had been intercepted and stolen during delivery to legitimate retailers, including the card I purchased. As an apology, I was offered a few free months of Apple Music, the same discount you get when you buy a new Apple Watch. I thanked Apple for re-enabling my account, but expressed my concerns over how this was allowed to happen in the first place. MassGenie, the company who sold me the stolen gift card, also eventually apologized and refunded me for the purchase.

Excellent customer support should not be an afterthought: for years at Apple, it was one of the defining features of the company, but it seems that time is passing. Apple did tell me, however, that my detailed documentation will allow it to review and improve its customer-service processes.

All in all, I was locked out of my account for roughly two months. Had I not taken advantage of my internal Apple contacts, I may not have gotten my account back. I spent a large part of those two months in a kind of grief, mourning not only the loss of a collection of media built up over a decade and a half, but also all the products I owned that no longer functioned as they were supposed to. The company I had given so much money to over the years could revoke my access to everything with just the press of a button.

This whole ordeal made me wonder if I want to continue using Apple products. The more I consider it, the more I realize it’s not just a question of choosing one product over another. The truth is that Google or Microsoft (or Nintendo, or Samsung, or Sony, the list goes on) could just as easily cut off a customer for no stated purpose and without recourse. 

Do we think enough about the rights we as consumers have when skimming over those long, unwieldy terms and conditions documents we sign to get access to the gadgets and products we buy every day? How much are we really buying, and how much are we just renting for a while

It used to be that you could buy a piece of hardware, install software, and update it (or not) as you saw fit. But now, software increasingly lives in the cloud, and hardware makers exercise control over what accessories or systems are compatible with the devices you own.

The value of hardware is no longer just derived from the hardware itself, but the services the hardware depends upon, which can be cut off at any point, either because a company goes out of business, or, like the situation I found myself in with Apple, it locks me out with no explanation. Even Apple itself is refocusing its business model more directly around locking customers into its hardware with the services it offers exclusively for those devices.

Unfortunately, much of my content is still locked into that Apple ecosystem. While many of my movies are accessible via Movies Anywhere—a Disney-owned service that allows users who’ve purchased movies from many major film studios on one app store to view them on other streaming services—not every studio’s movies are available. I wish there were a version of Movies Anywhere for other digital content like TV shows, music, and books, as those are basically stuck on my Apple devices.

It’s unsurprising that businesses prefer booking predictable, recurring revenue from subscription services over selling individual content, and consumers are generally on board with the idea—Spotify has 100 million paid users, and Apple Music has around 60 million, for example. Though you can still buy media today, it feels like those days are numbered. The death of the iTunes app itself seems designed to discourage purchasing content in favor of subscription services. But as subscription fatigue sets in, will some folks long for the simplicity of owning a library of purchased content that’s only the stuff they like?  Then again, digital piracy is on the rise, so perhaps people are already on their way. 

I’m not making any hasty decisions, but when it comes time to upgrade my phone, I’m likely going to try out an Android. After what’s happened with Apple, I want to engage in a bit of digital independence and not tie myself to a single company’s ecosystem. And perhaps after 11 years of using an iPhone, that’s not the worst idea.