I woke up the other day to the hiss and pop of oil in a frying pan, which was weird because I had just moved into my new apartment and no cookware was unpacked.
Those sounds, along with a faint acrid stench, were coming from my just-bought, pre-owned Samsung Galaxy S4, which I had purchased through the Verizon Certified Pre-Owned online store page. It had been charging on the windowsill overnight.
Because I’m a genius, I reached out and grabbed the phone. I quickly learned that not only did it sound like a skillet on the stove, it felt like one too. Burning fingers stuffed in my mouth, I unplugged the device and gingerly pried out the battery. Later, the phone turned on but the battery quickly ran out and would not recharge. So like any conscientious consumer, I put the whole mess in my backpack and headed to my local Verizon store to see about a repair or replacement.
It wasn’t pretty.
My experience with Verizon may not have been typical, but I did learn that buying a refurbished phone from a third-party is a bad idea, especially now that there are so many great high-end devices that you can buy for just a few hundred bucks. And if you really want to buy a refurbished device, it’s better to do so directly from the manufacturer instead of a third party like your wireless carrier or independent store.
What happened when I tried to get my phone replaced
I met with a Verizon customer service agent. What followed was a lengthy back and forth, but in the end he spent most of his time trying to find reasons I was at fault for my phone suddenly turning into a hot plate.
Here are the reasons he gave before even looking at my phone:
- Warranties only apply if you also purchased insurance. (This isn’t true.)
- The 90-day period of my warranty had ended. (I was actually about 80 days in.)
- I hadn’t purchased the phone from Verizon. (I had.)
After the more than half-hour it took to get through that list, he finally picked up my phone to have a look. The cycle began again, this time with him disassembling my phone for evidence of misuse.
Here’s what he came up with:
- The water damage indicator was tripped. (It wasn’t.)
- He saw rust when he shone a little pen light into my charger port. (There was some corrosion in the port. I couldn’t tell you whether the refurbished phone shipped with this problem, or whether it had mysteriously sprouted in the weeks since it arrived. I can tell you the phone was never wet in my care.)
- The 90-day period of my warranty had ended. (It still hadn’t, though this was taking a long time.)
At this point, he told me was going to get his manager and disappeared with my phone into a back room. The manager had a new list of reasons why I had caused my phone to overheat:
- I must have been using an off-brand charger. (I was using the charger that came with the device, and showed it to her, complete with molten plastic from the malfunction.)
- The plastic casing was chipped. (This was true, but irrelevant to my problem.)
The manager and clerk went back into their back room to confer. When they emerged, she told me that pre-owned devices are sold online, so it’s not the store’s responsibility to replace it. She suggested I try calling customer service, but that I shouldn’t expect much given the chipped plastic.
In the end, they were in the right.
Verizon’s website clearly states that it won’t replace devices with “unreasonable wear and tear” — and it’s up to Verizon’s discretion to determine where that line begins. Given that phones are built to look pretty on shelves, not weather actual day-to-day use, pretty much any phone will have some sign of damage after even a short amount of time.
A company spokesperson said he believes this was an isolated incident, and pointed me to this page on the Verizon Wireless website. It says:
A manufacturing defect is something that’s wrong with the device itself (e.g., internal, electrical or functional problems). It doesn’t include physical damage caused by outside forces.
Your options for replacing a device with a manufacturing defect are based on how long it’s been since you purchased the device.
Verizon’s warranty isn’t unique. Most tech companies give themselves many outs from their promises, and whether or not they choose to help customers out is largely a matter of corporate culture. A company like Verizon has next to no stake in the quality of a refurbished Samsung product, and most of its customers are locked into multi-year contracts.
Device manufacturers and small companies have a much greater stake in your good opinion. As a general rule, you can expect better customer service from these outfits.
For example, I recently contacted tiny Canadian e-reader maker Kobo about a device that showed a very minor defect after its warranty ran out. The company replaced it based on emailed photos, and let me hold on to the old one as a back up.
This was just good business. Kobo is only the fraction of the size of a giant like Verizon, so each customer is worth much more to them.
As a general rule, expect any refurbished device, even one from a major brand, to have a significant risk of failure. With a refurbished device, it’s in a third-party’s best interest to find any reason it can not to honour the warranty.
So what should you do if you’re looking for a phone and can’t afford a shiny new flagship device?
- Buy from manufacturers. They have a stake in the quality and reputations of their products. Check out well-reviewed, affordable products like the OnePlus line. Its $US300 OnePlus One was about the same price new as my refurbished Galaxy S4, and a superior machine. Plus it won’t lock you into a carrier contract.
- Go down-market. Most new phones today can access 4G internet and do just about anything a top-of-the-line machine will do without the bling-worthy specs. The new Moto G is an excellent example of this kind of mid-tier device.
- Buy last year’s model. A new iPhone 5s was a great phone in 2014, and that’s still true today. The only thing that’s changed with the release of the 6 is the price point.
- Scope out E-Bay with caution. There are some trusted sellers on there who develop reputations for selling new (or, if you’re willing to take a risk, like-new) devices at rates far lower than major stores.