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AT&T is holding my iPhone hostage and Obama doesn’t care: why the FCC must act on locked phones

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I lost phone service 4 days ago because AT&T(s t) decided to vandalize my property — my iPhone(s aapl) — and, despite earlier assurances, it looks like the White House has no intention of doing anything about the policies that let the company get away with it.

This is a story of a personal problem, but I’m sharing it because it could befall any one of you, and because it illustrates a deep flaw in the law: one that permits phone carriers to control devices they don’t even own.

Allow me to explain: last week, I signed up for a T-Mobile promotion that promised cheaper rates for my iPhone 4, which I own free and clear. On Friday, I inserted a new SIM card to join the new network and this is what I’ve seen ever since:

no service iPhone

The inconvenience, as you can imagine, has been extraordinary. It’s not just the loss of maps and email on the go; there’s also a growing number of people in my personal and professional life who are annoyed that I no longer make phone calls.

This might be tolerable if I was somehow at fault. Instead, T-Mobile(s tmus) screwed up by repeatedly assuring me that the transition would be seamless. I can live with this simple incompetence — especially as the company promised to knock $50 off my next phone bill. What’s deeply enraging is the behavior of AT&T(s t), which is keeping my phone locked simply because it can. (To be clear, other phone carriers engage in similar locking practices).

AT&T might have had a justification — a weak one — in the past since it gave me a subsidized iPhone in return for a two year contract. But that contract ended months ago. The phone is now entirely my property and AT&T should have no right to tamper with it — anymore than a car dealer can lock the ignition of a vehicle that someone has paid for.

So what is AT&T doing about it? A supervisor (who refused to give me his ID number) told me that people at AT&T no longer accept unlock requests, and directed me to a website. I went to that website and my “status” is just the same now as when I entered the request days ago:

at&T device lock screenshot

I have no idea when this ordeal will end, especially as AT&T’s service and public relations team have basically told me to jump in the lake. I walked into an AT&T store where an employee informed me that “unlocking is easy” but that the company won’t do it. The website says the unlock process can take 5 days, but who knows? It’s already been four and I haven’t received even an email update.

As for AT&T, recall this is a company that uses public airwaves to make over $125 billion a year. The White House, which claims to be consumer-friendly, should be all over the phone locking issue and, for a while, it was. But new trade documents just published by WikiLeaks reveal that: “while the White House was publicly proclaiming its support of cellphone unlocking, it was secretly negotiating a treaty that would ban it.” So much for that.

All this makes for an irrational consumer nightmare that may or may not be related to the “Mystery of the iPhones that won’t unlock” described in the Wall Street Journal.

If there’s any hope, it lies with the FCC, an independent agency that can act on its own. Tom Wheeler, the new head of the FCC, recently told my colleague, Kevin Fitchard, that he wants to force carriers to notify customers that their phones are eligible for unshackling — or automatically unlock them. Let’s hope he follows through. In the meantime, you can reach me by email.

This story has been updated to note that other carriers engage in similar locking practices.

29 Responses to “AT&T is holding my iPhone hostage and Obama doesn’t care: why the FCC must act on locked phones”

  1. My experience with AT&T’s new unlock process is a nightmare. and still unresolved. An old iphone 4 which has been a paperweight for 3 years. I own it free and clear and AT&T has no business deciding that it can’t be unlocked. Peiod. I go to give it to my father who is desperately in need of a phone. Insert is t-mobile SIM, and I get the error that the network is not supported. And it begins…

    1) go to AT&T store. told by totally unhelpful greeter girl that they no longer unlock devices int eh store, but it’s easy. I just call customer service and give them the IMEI number and it will be done.

    2) Call customer servie. Told by very unhelpful agent that they do not unlock the devices, they just direct me to a website to submit the request. I am given the website. Website is down for maintenance. “Customer service” agent basically shrugs me off and suggests I keep trying the website every hour. I am told all I need ot enter is the IMEI number and it will be processed usually within 24 hours, *but could take up to 5 days.

    12/24/13 (day 1)
    3) Website is finally back up. Upon submitting the unlock request I’m asked for not only the IMEI number as the agent told me, but also the “phone number associated to the account”….hmmmm. OK. This phone was used about 3 years ago on an account that had 3 lines (family plan) and the phone number on two of three lines has been changes twice. Which phone number on which line specifically did we use this phone for in 2011….hmmmm…surely that isn’t what they are asking for. I’m sure what they want is the phone number associated with my account which is my current number…..right? Ok, imei entered, my current accounts phone number enetered. Done. Oh, it’s Tuesday…Christmas eve? right. So I guess I’ll go ahead and assume this won’t be processed in 24 – 48 hours. I’ll be patient.

    12/25/13 (day 2) – nothing

    12/26/13 (day 3) – nothing

    12/27/13 (day 4) – nothing

    12/28/13 day 5) – ok, it’s been 5 days. Maybe not the full 5 business days with the holiday but still. I would like to know what’s up. Dad hasn’t had a phone for 5 days now, theres no reason the request should be denied. Let’s call the super helpful customer service number again. Ring…hello. Yes….blah blah blah…

    me: whats up with my ulock request?
    them: I don’t know, it could take up to 5 days
    me: it’s been 5 days
    them: Oh, ok. Well that’s just an “estimate”. Sometimes it takes longer.
    me: I see. where does it say that and when can I expect a response
    them: Sometimes it takes longer.
    me: yes you said that alreaady.
    them. I can open a “case” for you
    me: ok do that. when should I expect a response.
    them: I don’t know we don’t have any control over that.
    me: thanks you’ve been a delight.

    12/29/13 (day 6) – nothing

    12/30/13 (day 7) – nothing

    12/31/13 (day 8) – automated response email denying my unlock request. Reason given: request does not match the account information. What? Guess I’ll be calling back and check on that “case” now. Ring….

    me: So my unlock request was denied after 8 full days of waiting. why is this?
    them: (reading directly from the email I got) request does not match the account information
    me: yes I saw the email too. Can we be more specific?
    them: let me put you on hold (for 25 min)
    them: I’m back, yes it looks like the phone number you entered was wrong.
    me: ok, the online for was not clear what phone number I am supposed to enter. Can you tell me what number I need to enter
    them: the one associated to the phone
    me: yes that’s what the fprm says. this phone hasn’t been used in three years, I didn’t track the IMEI of which phone was on which line when it was used and I have changed the phone number on all lines at least once. So do I need my current number, the old number n the main line, the old number on the line that was associated to this phone, the second line that was assocuated to this phone…..can you tell me which line was using this phone because I have no idea.
    them: ummmmm….can you hold please (for another 20 min)
    them: ok, you need to provide the phone number that this phone was associated to when it was in service.
    me: Ok, I just don’t know which one it was. mayby 123-456-7891?
    them: nope that’s not it
    me: can you see the number?
    them: no I can’t
    me: then how do you know that’s not it
    them: I’m not sure
    me: ok (awkward silence)
    me: so maybe it’s 234-567-8912?
    them: yep that’s it
    me: I thought you couldn’t see it
    them: yep that’s it.
    me: fine. can we unlock it now?
    them: we don’t unlock
    me: but you just said that was the correct information.
    them: your case is still pending.
    me: no my case was denied
    them: no your unlock request was denied. your case is still pending
    me: I’m lost
    them: your case has a resoultion date of 1/6/13. give it until then.
    me: thats another week from now.
    them: sorry
    me: can I speak to a supervisor
    them: blah blah blah they can’t help you
    me: superivor please
    them: (on hold for 10 min)
    supervisor: blah blah blah (up to 5 days) blah blah blah case pending
    me: I heard all this already. Tell me what exatctly I need to do to get this phone unlocked
    supervisor: well this phone was never assocaited to your account so it can’t be unlocked.
    me: excuse me? first, that’s not what the person I just spoke to told me. second, yes it was, third, this phone is over 3 years old and was purchased through AT&T and has long since been paid for. I do own it, it was associated to my account and no one has any business denying a request to unlock t and do whatever I please with it.
    supervisor: well we have to protect ourselves from fraud
    me: so now I’m trying to defaud AT&T
    supervisor: how about we let out tier 2 support investigate. Your case has a resoultion date of 1/6/13
    me: great. Happy new year.

    then I submit another unlock request with the phone number I think is right. immediately denied.

    submit another request to unlock with yet another number which might be the right one. immediately denied

    submit another request to unlock my galaxy S3 which was purchased at full price as a gift last year. Surely that can be unlocked. Pending…

    1/1/14 (day 9) – nothing

    1/2/14 (day 10) – nothing

    1/3/14 (day 11) – nothing

    1/4/14 (day 12) – nothing

    1/5/14 (day 13) – nothing

    1/6/14 (day 14) – then day that my “case” was supposed to be resolved by. I hear nothing. Check the status of my other device unlock reqyest for my galaxy. 6 days passed since that request. Still “pending”

    1/7/14 (day 15) – still nothing. two devies I own free and clear. neither unlock request has been processed. My father who has now been without a phone since Dec 21, 2013 is still without a phone. ANd now I’m left to call AT&T customer service….yet again.

    Way to go AT&T.

    BTW, I’ve been a loyal customer since 2007 and never complained or ever been late paying my astronomical bill. I’ve bought countelss devices and services from AT&T. Never before requested a device to be unlocked. And this is how I’m treated.

  2. My brother, witch is an ATT customer gave me his 4s Iphone. I have T-moble .I calledATT to get it unlocked.They sent me to the unlock website.I filled out the info and sent it.I used my brothers email because it was his phone and he is an ATT customer.they said it would be 14 days before they would unlock it.To me this should be illegal because my brother owns the phone outright and ATT has no rights to that phone. Its just another company getting away with something just because there BIG !

  3. Neither AT&T’s nor Apple’s unlock instructions worked. BUT THIS DID:
    – Turn off power (top button; swipe to right)
    – Remove SIM card
    – Turn on
    – Settings > General > Reset > Erase All Content And Settings
    – Turn off
    – Put SIM card back in
    – Connect to iTunes
    – Swipe Hello screen, select English, United States …
    – Observe “Congratulations, your iPhone has been unlocked” pop up from iTunes
    This is for my 64 GB 4S, off contract as of 12/12/2013. I requested the unlock on AT&T’s web site last Friday, 12/13, and almost immediately received two emails: one confirming that I’d requested the unlock, and another one that confirmed that my phone was eligible to be unlocked, with links to instructions – but those instructions failed to unlock my phone. However, the sequence that I listed above worked, after two failed attempts at following AT&T/Apple’s instructions.

    • thanks for the reminder, Justin.. I should have updated this before.. Yes, AT&T finally did in fact unlock my phone, but after the promised “five-day” response time — which resulted in an automated message saying my unlock request had been denied.. I called to find out why and they said I had a balance, and that I would have to clear it and start the whole unlock process all over again..

      Somewhere, in the middle of all this, a PR person sorted it out and freed my phone.. But to be honest, I think it was because of this blog post rather than my calls to the company

      The whole experience deepened my conviction that there must be a legal duty for the carriers to notify and unlock phones when contracts expire.

  4. The reason it is such a process is due to people commiting fraud by opening accounts, activating lines and getting $400 off the retail price of the phone by selling them. Point blank.
    The world doesn’t revolve around you and att reps are not conspiring to make you are anyone else’s lives harder, they’re keeping their jobs by following policy
    Jeeze, let’s use some common logic.

    • Justin Mattson

      That’s not fraud. You enter into an agreement when you get that subsidized phone and part of it is a contract for at least some period of service. That contract has an early termination fee. The termination fee is what should keep people from getting subsidized phones, closing their account and selling the phone for a profit.

  5. It has been over a month, and AT&T still refuses to unlock my three iPhones (my personal iPhone and those of two children) despite me paying the early termination fee. I can’t be alone in having paid the early termination fee – and thereby owning my phones outright – and then having AT&T refuse to unlock my phone. There must be an enterprising law firm out there willing to look at the huge damages award waiting to be collected for AT&T’s oppressive and illegal behavior. Do you have any leads?

  6. I’m surprised everyone is so upset with AT&T, because Verizon is much worse. Verizon flatly refuses to unlock any of their GSM-capable phones, even those out of contract. The iPhone 4S, 5, and 5S all support both CDMA and GSM

  7. Johnny Ward

    There’s a slave, enslaved by his own arrogance and incompetence, who wasn’t emancipated by Lincoln – but he does live in a big house that Lincoln lived in! (For more info Google “The Background Obama Can’t Cover Up.”)

  8. I bought a used AT&T iPhone from eBay a month ago. My plan was to use it on T-mobile. AT&T’s old unlocking policy allowed consumers to unlock their used phones purchased from third party sellers (eBay, Craigslist, etc.). A valid receipt was required to be faxed. The AT&T rep told me they changed the policy recently, they no longer unlock used phones for non AT&T customers. The new policy now, is only current and former AT&T customers can request unlocks. The phone must also be contract free. So, now I’m stuck with a $250 brick.

    • B, thanks for your comment.. The answer is two-fold: 1) that type of unlock can result in the phone being “bricked” when a new iOS update comes up (ie you can’t update the phone); 2) AT&T has no right to keep the phone locked in the first place

  9. Mr. Obama and his staff have much more important issues to spend his time on, so I see no reason for you to vent your anger at him in your title. A delay and painful process like you’re dealing with to get your phone unlocked is not a justification for the U.S. stopping their work on urgent national issues. Sorry for your pain, but it seems like AT&T is the problem here, and you can always hack your phone or sell it and buy a new one if you aren’t patient enough to fight through the process. If you think your issue is common enough to require legislation, talk to your legislator. The White House is not the legislative branch of the government.

  10. I didn’t have any issues unlocking my 4S.
    I assume you did the iTunes backup, erase all settings and then a restore right? When I did that I got the message that the phone was unlocked. So first you register at the website and after 24hrs you do the iTunes thing. Worked like a charm for me.

  11. HateDiscus

    In 2010 I moved out of the U.S. I had an iphone 3G, and my contract had recently passed the two year mark. I called up AT&T to unlock my phone so I could use it with a Russian sim card. They said, unequivocally, that they wouldn’t do it. So I called Apple and asked for a factory unlock and they also said no. In the end, I just jailbroke my phone to unlock it, but that was a bit of a pain.

    I see the wisdom in buying unlocked phones now. Subsidized locked phones are a ripoff. If you can’t save up $650 for a phone, maybe you should work out your finances before you sign up for a $70+ monthly phone bill.

  12. I got mine from eBay and was locked, I emailed AT&T and filled out the online forum and waited about 3 days and needed to reset my iPhone and when I re activated it it said congratulations your device is unlocked :-). So I was really surprised on that one!

  13. if you would have requested the unlock before porting to t-mobile the request most like would go through very fast. my experience is to expect significant delay if submitted for unlock as ‘former customer’.

    golden rule: always unlock first and than switch carriers.

    • I suspect you’re right, Frank, that unlock is slower for a ‘former customer.’

      “Unlock first” is good advice. I wish I’d heard it earlier (despite speaking with both ATT and TMobile reps about the process before switching, and neither raised the issue). That’s why I think Wheeler’s idea of notice, or simply forcing carriers to unlock after contract, is a good idea.

  14. In my case it took 5 days to process the unlock request. After that they should email the instructions for unlock, basically you insert the new SIM card, restart the phone, it should work.

    That was done a year ago.

  15. I left AT&T after a number of reasonably happy years and went to T-Mobile. AT&T unlocked my iPhone in about 2 or 3 hours even though I was leaving them. I recently had them unlock another phone and it took less than a day. I think your case isn’t the norm and if you have trouble all you need to do is call AT&T or get on their chat and they will try to help.

    After 2 months of constant screw-ups on the behalf of T-Mobile I returned to AT&T. The short version is T-Mobile took 10 days to ship my SIM but they took control of my phone the day I ordered service. Translation. No phone for 10 days. Then I discovered that they considered my home to be in a roaming area so they capped my data. Then I ordered a 5s which never arrived and they lied to me each time I asked what was going on. And that is the short version. The AT&T short version is easier. I went back, got a 5s in under a week and when I said I thought my bill was too much they issues me a credit for $160 and even that only took 5 minutes to do.

    The lesson I learned though was that if you think AT&T has bad customer service, wait til you experience T-Mobile.

  16. Related story:

    I bought an HTC One X (AT&T branded but unlocked with a factory code) last year on ebay from a highly rated seller. I used it on Straight Talk for a few days and then the service cut out. I called Straight Talk and they said there wasn’t a problem as far as they could tell, but the phone couldn’t send or receive calls.

    So I called AT&T and they said they had suspended service on the phone, or black listed it. I asked if the phone was stolen and they told me ‘no’. I asked if the original owner was delinquent on his/her account and they said ‘no’.

    What I understand is that AT&T had a ‘6 month exclusive’ on the phone and they would black list any phones that were used on other networks. I’m pretty sure the black list was implemented as a way to stop the sale of stolen phones, but I was assured by an AT&T rep and his manager that this phone wasn’t stolen.

    So, just AT&T being anti-competitive and abusive because they can. I’m not surprised that such a user-hostile company would refuse to unlock your phone.

  17. The day after unlocking iPhones became available on AT&T, I got on with chat and my phone was unlocked within the hour. But if I had a big enough soapbox to stand on to get my way, I’d probably stand on it too.

  18. I got my iPhone unlocked about 2 months ago. On my first call, the agent told me that it wasn’t possible. On my second call, the agent directed me to a web site. I completed the information on-line, and about 2 weeks later a recieved an email telling me that the request was complete and to backup then restore my iphone.

    Moral of the story: 1) AT&T customer services is terrible, and they don’t care. 2) Fill out the form on-line and be patient.


    • AT&T refuse to unlock my phone!!!!!! It’s been over month now. Today I’m told my request is denied because information provided does not match the information on the account. I was on a family plan so they want the acct holders’ name, acct holders’ email, and acct holders’ AT&T account Passcode. Initially all the csr told me was to enter my information on the request now I’m told something totally different. I agree that once the contract is completed and all is done the phone should automatically be unlocked. AT&T can automatically lock your phone before using. Then in return can automatically unlock your phone after all is complete. No balance on acct why is AT&T holding my phone hostage? I also was reading about this new law with at&t as of October 31,2013 that changed the whole unlocking process which gives at&t unlimited authority on your phone you buy with your money.