How Apple was busted for 'bricking' after Australian authorities went undercover

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SYDNEY — The Australian regulator responsible for consumer rights has revealed how its staff went undercover to allegedly catch Apple red-handed illegally denying customers free repair rights for their iPhones and iPads.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in April started legal action against both Apple Australia and Apple USA, accusing the conglomerate of “false, misleading, or deceptive representations about consumers’ rights” in regard to iPhones and iPads affected by the so-called “error 53” fault.

Error 53 occurs when Apple software detects that the device was previously repaired by a third party. The “error” was found to be the company deliberately making the unit unusable, as a deterrent for customers to take their devices to repairers not affiliated to Apple.

This is despite Australian Consumer Law stating that customers are entitled to replacement or repair if the product is faulty, and that previous repair by someone other than the manufacturer can’t solely waive this right.

In April, after a year-long investigation, the ACCC said it found Apple “routinely refused” to help customers with defective devices if it thought it was previously serviced by a third party repairer. This refusal even occurred if that repair was unrelated to the fault, the commission alleged.

Now court papers have revealed the consumer watchdog went undercover to verify the complaints received from Australians.

The ACCC submitted to the Federal Court that its staff contacted 13 Apple Stores around Australia last June, to enquire about repairing a defective iPhone. The ACCC staffer told the Apple employee in every call that the screen had been replaced by a third party repairer but that the current fault was with the speaker.

“In each call, Apple Australia represented to the ACCC caller that no Apple entity (including Apple Australia and Apple US) was required to, or would remedy, the defective speaker at no cost under the [Australian Consumer Law] if the screen of the iPhone had been replaced by someone other than Apple Australia or an Apple-Authorised Service Provider,” the court filing read.

The sting covered six stores in New South Wales, three in Victoria, and one each in Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and the ACT.

ACCC chair Rod Sims said in April that denial of consumer rights based on the use of a non-Apple repairer has harmful flow-on effects.

“Denying a consumer their consumer guarantee rights simply because they had chosen a third party repairer not only impacts those consumers but can dissuade other customers from making informed choices about their repair options including where they may be offered at lower cost than the manufacturer,” he said.

The court case is set to be heard in December in the Federal Court in Victoria.

The whole saga first kicked off when customers upgraded to iOS 9, released in late 2015. The upgraded operating system was designed to detect if the iPhone or iPad’s home button or the fingerprint recognition sensor was not in its original state — to deduce if a third party had serviced the product.

Upon detection, the screen would show “error 53”, with the operating system forcibly and permanently making the device unusable – a practice known as “bricking”.

Even Apple Store staff reportedly could not reverse the bricking and users had no opportunity to retrieve personal information stored on the iPhone or iPad that had not been backed up into the cloud.

Apple Australia declined to comment to Business Insider on the issue.

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