Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Story of Spring Break and The iPhone.....

I was at a local AT&T store for a painful reason. I was attempting to mitigate the expense and hassle created by a family member's "loss" of a second smartphone in a twelve month period. Sadly, my last inexpensive Go Phone also met a mysterious demise during an earlier family cell phone crisis. Sigh.

Almost everyone has had to replace a damaged, lost, or stolen cellular phone at one time or another. Still, you may find this tale has some entertainment value (and hopefully a lessen or two as well).....

If you aren't aware, AT&T (and many other network providers) use Asurion as their insurance carrier. At one point iPhones were ineligible for insurance except through select, third party, companies. This is no longer the case. Your iOS or Android SmartPhone can be insured for a monthly fee. Given the often vast difference between a modern smartphone's subsidized price and its full retail cost, the $5/month (approximate) charge is probably worthwhile. Don't confuse the promotional pricing with the "full retail" price you will have to pay should you need to purchase a replacement on the open market (i.e. without signing a new two year carrier commitment or renewing and eligible line for an additional two year term)!

Having some peace of mind is especially desirable if you are "accident prone" or are entrusting what amounts to a mobile computer with access to the world to anyone twenty-one years of age or younger (and perhaps this seminal date of passage into adulthood isn't even a good dividing line).... There are limits to insurance coverage beyond the deductible. If you aren't aware of your policy's limitations, you should spend a few minutes learning about the key elements of your coverage before you actually need to file a claim.

Early in my daughter's spring break adventure, she and her iPhone 4 (age three months) "lost" one another. The explanation as to the "how and where" of this parting are vague to put it kindly. I think it is fair to say that the issue can be attributed to a first encounter with the French Quarter.... In an effort to "handle the situation" without parental guidance (or lecturing), my daughter found a convenient AT&T store in bijioux country more than willing to assist.

Asurion "automatically" cancels your contract if you make two claims in any twelve month period. Further, that less than three month old "replacement" iPhone 4 which I purchased for $99, will cost a cool $199, to replace with the insurance deductable! (The best "full price" I can find  for this basic 8 Gigabyte! iPhone is $439 at the time of this writing.)

Asurion doesn't make it easy to file a second claim! Despite what AT&T tells you, going through the "no hassle," ten minute, online claim process, isn't sufficient. In fact, it is just the first step down the rabbit hole. You must find, print, fill out, and get notarized, an affidavit. Once completed, you have to upload, or fax, this document along with a copy of your most recent cellular bill and copy of legal identification (typically a valid driver's license). Be sure to put your name and telephone number of the lost/stolen device on top of every page before sending this  into the electronic ether otherwise the gnomes at Asurion are likely to inform you that your paperwork is deficient.

This process can take you a couple of hours to complete. If you happen to be a notary you can  shave an hour off the process. If you happen to use a bank without local branches as I do, you may have to add an additional hour to the hassle. (Thank you to the local Music Row Bank of America for helping with this step! While I have a BofA credit card, the local agent broke the rule requiring a deposit account for this service and notarized the affidavit for me anyway!).

Wait. You aren't finished! Asurion promises to contact you after they collect your documentation to either a.) continue processing the claim or, b.) request new or additional information. In my case, no additional communication was forthcoming. Having waited two days for a response, I called Asurion. An agent found my paperwork (presumably in some never ending electronic in-basket), reiterated that this is the end of the line for my insurance policy, asked if I wanted to proceed, and continue the claim.

After a week a new iPhone 4 arrived. Azurion states your replacement may be a refurbished unit, but this unit appeared to be factory sealed. My daughter is once again, "smartphone enabled." She is aware that the insurance policy is now void and her "lifelines" for the year are exhausted (as is her father in repeatedly handling these misadventures).

How could this have played out differently? What lessons are worth learning beyond the tenuous life expectancy of expensive phones on Spring Break in the French Quarter? And why did I have to go to the local AT&T store to set things straight?

The last question is perhaps most easily addressed first. Rather than filing a claim while on break, my daughter with the willing assistance of the New Orleans AT&T Rep, elected to upgrade my third line (which was eligible) rather than going through the Asurion claim hoops. This had the salutory effect of getting my daughter immediately "on the road" with a new iPhone. It had the decidedly negative impact of costing me an upgrade potentially worth $500 or more AND adding a two year commitment to a line which had been dormant costing just $10/month. (As most everyone is aware, the true cost of smartphone ownership is that two year data plan costing $30-$50/month for the life of the contract!) Score one for daughter; zero for Dad. After finding out about this incident and insisting that my daughter return the phone within AT&T's "no questions asked thirty (30) day window" and file an insurance loss, most of the damage could be undone. Lesson One: Don't put any family member on your plan as an Administrator unless you are prepared to live the consequences of their decisions.

Had my daughter informed me of the loss, the first step would have been to use Apple's, Find My iPhone App to attempt to ascertain where the missing phone was at the moment. Lesson Two: Download and activate Find My iPhone immediately if you have not already done so on ALL your iOS devices! The App and service are free. If you are an Android user, there are several free Apps which provide similar functionality. For iOS, after downloading the app, you must enable it on EACH iOS device (despite the name, the service works equally well on iPads).

Assuming the iPhone in question wasn't off the grid, which is possible if the iPhone had been completely powered down or already reset to factory original condition, two alternatives were available. If it was "hiding" under a chair, bed, or armrest, the Find My iPhone App allows you to force a ring tone at high volume (even if the unit was set to mute) to assist you in ferreting out the device.

Failing this "easy" solution, you can also create a remote notification on the screen. This can inform a good neighbor of your name, current contact information, and other details to make it easier for them to reunite you with your device.

Door Number Three, if all is literally lost, you can remotely wipe the device of all data. This at least assures you that a bad guy will get away only with your iPhone and not any precious data! While this nuclear solution will make IT professionals responsible for hardware and data loss sleep better, it is also peace of mind for those of us who increasingly store our life's critical data on our mobile devices.

As an aside, I am happy to report that major US carriers are finally, and reluctantly, agreeing to set up a lost/stolen 'phone database! This will presumably make it impossible to reactivate a stolen device on US carriers effectively removing much of the incentive to steal these devices in the first place! All I can say is, "It is about time!" (There is yet another lost BlackBerry tale which brings this issue into sharp relief which I will not delve into in this post.)

All of the above remedial actions are only possible if Find My iPhone is already installed and activated! In the case of my daughter's iPhone 4 it was because I turned this service on, along with automatic iCloud Backup!, prior to setting the device loose in the world of college campus mayhem! SmartPhone owners beware! Failure to do set this service up immediately is likely to make you very unhappy at some future date.....

Lest you think I would have let my daughter continue her journey through the French Quarter phoneless, read on for my final lesson. All of the above measures could have taken place while she spoke with me from the AT&T store in New Orleans. In just a few minutes and mouse clicks, the phone's status could have been identified and appropriately addressed.

Assuming the iPhone was lost to the spring break gods, AT&T sells a very capable feature phone for $20! That's right, $20! In fact, the Go Phone I mentioned at the beginning of this tale cost around $50 through Amazon a couple of years ago. Deflation in feature phones has arrived! (Another old feature phone I found had a missing charger. It was determined that replacing the charger would be more expensive than purchasing this entirely new phone from the local retail store.) While awaiting the replacement phone from Asurion, this economical phone can be fitted with a SIM card using the lost phone's number. This basic feature phone certainly isn't an iPhone but it is capable of texting and phone calls; everything a college spring breaker must have to remain safe away from home. Problem solved!

Lesson Three: If you find this tale familiar, or possibly a foreshadowing of some future event, pick up one of these inexpensive feature phones which works on your carrier's network. You don't have to activate it until you need it, but for $20, you have alternatives. In fact, consider throwing this cheapy at your kid the next time they tell you they are headed for the proverbial hills. They can live without FaceBook 24/7 access for a few days and losing one of these phones won't raise your blood preassure nearly as much as that $500 iPhone! You may even want to take this advice yourself the next time you are headed to the beach....

Even when kids try to be adult and handle the problem themselves, they don't always realize the best course of action. If you are a parent who may find themselves in similar circumstances, don't give your kid full account access. This will "encourage" them to call you to get their lifeline (aka smartphone) problem handled in the best, safest, way for you all..... Oh, and you may want to bookmark this post for easy reference, just in case!

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Companies:   Apple, AT&T  

I currently have a long position in $APPL

This commentary is not meant as an endorsement of any company or to provide financial advice.  If the author has any financial interest in any company mentioned at the time of this article’s posting, it will be explicitly noted. I welcome feedback and comments. 

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