"Because iTunes has an e-mail address and credit card information, Apple could use that information to track people down who use stolen iPods."
One Monday morning last month, I found that my car, parked on Third Avenue in Hillcrest, had been broken into and my $400 video iPod was gone. After filing a police incident report, I called 800-MY-APPLE to report the theft. An Apple service representative named David took my serial number and opened a case, but then he told me, "There's nothing really that this will do."
I decided to research stolen iPods online. I found J. Alain Ferry's website, StoleniPods.com. On it, Ferry suggests that there is something Apple could do. "Apple maintains records of stolen iPod serial numbers," the website reads. "Apple's iTunes software records the serial number of the last connected iPod. Apple sells songs to people that enter their billing information into the iTunes software. So why isn't Apple doing anything to prevent the sale of songs to the person with YOUR stolen iPod?"
A recent graduate of Suffolk University Law School in Boston, Ferry started the site in May after losing an iPod. He'd been traveling from Detroit to Boston when an iPod he'd borrowed was stolen from his laptop-computer bag. Ferry had also called Apple and been disappointed. "I guess I assumed Apple would help," he said.
Ferry had hoped that Apple would refuse iTunes service to his stolen iPod. He knew that Apple tracked iPods because, he says, "iTunes recommends songs through the serial numbers of the last iPod connected" to a computer.
Doing business with customers possessing stolen iPods is illegal, Ferry thinks. "It's aiding and abetting in a crime." He points out that cell phone companies are responsive to customers whose phones are stolen, deactivating the phones so they can't be used.
Apple maintains that it won't service an iPod that it knows has been stolen. But to know that the iPod has been stolen, the service rep would have to run the serial number, and that isn't routinely done.
Ted Hekman, an IT developer for a Los Angeles-based online ad revenue company, suggests another step Apple could take. "Because iTunes has an e-mail address and credit card information," Hekman says, "Apple could use that information to track people down who use stolen iPods -- or even charge them."
Furthermore, asserts Hekman, "Apple could go so far as to mess up an iPod internally, making it useless." But he admits that "a savvy computer person could bypass even that; you can reload a hard drive to make it work again."
Apple could track stolen iPods, but it doesn't want to, says Nate Glucksman, an Apple employee at San Diego State University's bookstore. "They don't monitor iPods," he believes, "because it would be a lot of hassle for them." When asked what he would do if his iPod were stolen, Glucksman said he would report the missing iPod and "I'd buy another one. If the reported stolen one were recovered, it'd make a good present."
An anti-Big Brother attitude runs through the technological community. On the Forum section of AppleInsider.com, a site devoted to Apple news and sales, the majority of members were against the idea of Apple's tracking iPod use. A member-user named "Ebby" had the idea of checking iPods and iTunes accounts against a list of stolen iPods but later argued, "It is when you store information on a user, tie it to an account, or can gather other information by the frequency of iPod use...that's when my problems arise." Ebby concluded, "The level of stuff they have to do to start cracking down would scare me, and I wouldn't get involved."
Apple's profits have been closely linked to the sales of iPods and songs. In October 2005, BBC News reported, "Apple has quadrupled its quarterly profits, thanks to global sales of more than 6.5 million of its iPod music players over the past three months." And in January 2006, according to the Washington Post, Apple cofounder Steve Jobs said in his opening speech at the Macworld Conference and Expo in San Francisco, "We've sold over 42 million iPods." He also said that the iTunes Music Store had sold 850 million copies of songs. The New York Times reported in January that "Apple music sales now account for 59 percent of the company's total sales."
Ferry hopes that Apple's decision not to track stolen iPods doesn't have to do with the fact that the more iPods that are stolen, the more iTunes users buy songs and the more victims buy replacement iPods. "I hope it's not about the bottom line," he says. "I have a lot of respect for Steve Jobs.
"By May, something like 50 million iPods were sold," continues Ferry. "I think Apple should take a little money and create a unit of prevention for iPod theft. Apple needs to step up to the plate and create a program. It's business negligence, not doing anything when they could."
In the past, when music executives pressured Steve Jobs to charge more than 99 cents for iTunes songs, Jobs acted as an advocate for customers and called music executives "greedy." According to a September BBC News article, "Mr. Jobs vowed to resist such pressure, after revealing that music firms were pushing for higher prices on Apple's iTunes Internet music store."
Ferry says he's had an "overwhelming response" to StoleniPods.com, receiving "well over a thousand e-mails" from people who filled out his mailing-list form. "Only one said, 'Stop whining.' Some are crazy. They say, 'My iPod is my life' or 'I'm lost without my iPod.' "
Ferry isn't sure what he'll do with all the names, addresses, and phone numbers he's accumulated. "I want to start some kind of program or petition and create exposure through the website," he says. But if Apple can't find an innovative way to assist victims of stolen iPods, Ferry says he may take legal action. "I'm considering the possibility of talking to those people who e-mailed me about a class-action lawsuit."
The police officer who took my incident report had no advice on how I could get my iPod back. He recommended theft prevention and offered a tip. When you put your iPod out of sight in your car, put the charger out of sight too.
Nate Glucksman, the SDSU Apple employee, suggested marking iPods with DataDots -- laser-encoded dots the size of a grain of sand with a PIN that is registered in the national DataDot law enforcement database. For this to be helpful, the police would have to recover the iPod and read the DataDot.
When Karen Todd of Maryland gave her husband an iPod, she marked it in a more conspicuous way, according to a story in the Washington Post. She inscribed it with a line from his favorite song. Last year, after her house was broken into and the iPod stolen, she found the inscribed iPod on eBay. (After clicking on "see seller's other items," she also found her laptop computer.)
In Nottingham, England, Adrian Smith had an easier time. The manager of a store that carries Apple products, Smith recovered his stolen iPod when the thief, needing cables, brought the iPod into the store. As Smith told Macworld, "I immediately recognized it...and when I plugged the iPod into the Macintosh it came up as 'Adrian's iPod' straight away."