Can You Trust the Apple Store With Your Devices & Data?

Apple Store Employees

A Gizmodo exposé Tuesday on the inner workings of a “Southwestern” Apple Store attempted to shed some light on the reportedly corrupt and scandalous activities of the store’s management and employees. The long list of illicit activities outlined by two anonymous Gizmodo sources is shocking, to say the least, but as a former Apple Retail Genius with experience at three U.S. stores, I found some of Gizmodo’s claims surprising.

Gizmodo’s sources made the following claims:

  • Managers stole merchandise by giving it away to businesses for free in exchange for personal favors and services.
  • Managers “stole” employee bonuses for themselves.
  • Employees replaced an “unlimited” number of broken iPhones for themselves and their friends.
  • Employees and managers traded free products or replacements to local bars in exchange for free or discounted beer.
  • Genii took new products out of their boxes and swapped them with old products for themselves and friends.
  • The Genius team often worked while drunk.
  • Genii abused customer computers by destroying hard drives and pouring whiskey on computers that had been checked in for repair.

It is certainly possible that the particular store Gizmodo investigated had such a poor combination of corrupt management and unprincipled employees that it created the kind of environment in which all of the claimed events took place. It’s also possible that a few excitable former Apple Store employees became enamored with the attention that a tabloid-style Gizmodo article creates and perhaps exaggerated in hindsight the circumstances of their time at the store.

Regardless, the question for Apple customers is whether, in light of Gizmodo’s report, they can trust the employees in the blue shirts with their expensive products and personal information. Drawing on my experience at Apple Retail and the experiences of other employees I’ve become acquainted with over the years, I’ll attempt to analyze the claimed activities from the Gizmodo article and rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 representing the highest likelihood that the activity could occur under the supervision of unscrupulous employees or managers.

A Store Manager Stealing Merchandise: (2/5)

The manager described by Gizmodo’s sources sounds like an awful person. Having an awful boss, at Apple or anywhere else, is certainly possible but having a boss at Apple who “manipulated inventory” to give free computers to businesses in exchange for personal services is unlikely. Apple Store inventory is tightly controlled, and frequent checks with a separate inventory list higher up the command chain tends to minimize unaccounted items.

Further, go into any Apple Store and ask to speak to the Genius Admin or Inventory Control Specialist. You’ll be greeted by a beleaguered individual with the primary responsibility of keeping track of every product and part in the store. What was sold, was repaired, what was returned? All of these questions must be answered accurately by the end of the day. A manager forcing an employee to “fix the books,” assuming the cooperation of one of these employees, could only be concealed until the store’s part list was reconciled with the one higher up the chain.

“Stealing” Bonuses: (5/5)

The employee evaluations that determine raises and bonuses are conducted almost exclusively by each store’s own management. An unscrupulous manager, unfortunately, could easily fail to award a well-deserved bonus to one or more employees.

As for awarding those bonuses to herself, the manager wouldn’t be able to do that directly, but if there were management-level bonuses for reducing costs, for example, the manager could slash pay and bonuses in exchange for her own “legitimate” bonus.

Broken iPhone

“Unlimited iPhones”: (4/5)

Apple Retail in the past year has become more restrictive when it comes to service replacements. For a time, almost any customer who was still in the warranty period could get a “one time replacement” free of charge for their mobile devices damaged by physical or accidental abuse. Although the original AppleCare (not the new AppleCare+), explicitly excluded physical damage caused by the customer, Apple Retail (smartly) realized that giving customers a one-time exception and keeping them happy and loyal to the company was worth a lot more than the replacement cost of a phone or iPod.

As a result, Genii and managers had wide discretion to replace phones for almost any reason as “a one time exception.” That one time exception, however, wasn’t strictly monitored in the Genius repair database. Nothing initially would prevent a Genius from swapping a phone that had already been replaced for issues not legitimately covered by the warranty.

Although the system didn’t prevent “unlimited swaps,” Apple Retail management higher up the chain kept an eye on each store’s numbers. Each “swapped” phone was linked to the one it replaced in the database, so it was easy to identify customers or employees who had a string of replacements on their account.

Still, employees determined to take unlimited phones could easily do it, at least for a short amount of time. Anyone engaging in this practice for more than a few weeks to a month would likely be caught once someone who wasn’t “corrupt” took a look at the service records.

These types of “swaps” are no longer common, however. After Apple introduced AppleCare+ last fall, which allows customers to pay extra to swap damaged iOS devices, the company significantly scaled back its “one time replacement” policy. Now that Apple had a way to get money of customers with bad luck or clumsy hands, it didn’t want its employees just giving the phones away. It’s still possible to get a free replacement without AppleCare+, but stores are closely monitored and any store that makes too many “customer service exceptions” gets a stern talking to by Apple Corporate.

Trading Computers for Booze: (1/5)

While Genii and management can often be very popular with surrounding businesses due to “free replacements,” as discussed above, it’s unlikely that entire computers would be given away for free. Inventory controls and checks would make it very difficult for a manager to justify a missing computer.

As for “inventory loopholes,” while managers do have the ability to authorize giving a free replacement computer to a customer after multiple failed repairs, the store still has to collect the old computer when they hand over the new replacement, and that old computer is tagged and sent back to Apple with the receipt for the new one. Managers, and definitely Genii, cannot simply hand out free computers without someone upstairs finding out.

Drunk Genius Team: (3/5)

Being a Genius can often be stressful, difficult, and exhausting. Like those in other jobs of this nature, it’s not uncommon to find an arguably unhealthy abuse of alcohol among the team. But throwing back a few beers after a shift is an entirely different animal than stumbling around the Genius Room and trying to perform repairs while drunk.

It’s certainly possible for employees of any profession to make a bad decision and come to work drunk, but it’s not the norm. 

Swapping Old Products for New Products: (2/5)

According to Gizmodo’s sources, a Genius was apparently taking old products, such as an original iPhone, and swapping it for a new service part, such as an iPhone 3G. Service replacements at the Genius Bar are tracked by product type and serial number, but only if the transaction is completed. If the Genius simply swaps the old and new devices, and then places the box (now containing the old device) back in the parts drawer, there is no system to stop him.

However, parts in that drawer are used up frequently. Another Genius will soon take that same box, open it, expect to find a new iPhone 3G and instead find a used first generation iPhone. Someone could get away with this once or twice, but if it became a common occurrence, management would simply check the video feeds of the Genius Bar and quickly catch the perpetrator.

Abusing Customer Computers: (2/5)

Whenever a customer hands over a computer or device to the Genius Bar for repairs or diagnostics, the customer is first required to sign a sheet of paper. That paper contains legal waivers limiting Apple’s liability for damage, component failure, or data loss that may occur while the item is in Apple’s hands.

That doesn’t mean that Apple employees can smash your hard drive on the ground, or pour whiskey on your laptop and get away with it, as the Gizmodo source claims. The kind of damage the source claims was inflicted on some customer computers would be immediately apparent to the customer or to another technical support person at Apple or elsewhere.

Apple Retail Employees Smash Computer

Image via Shutterstock

There are also many cameras inside Apple Stores, both in the front of the store to keep tabs on customers, and in the back of the store to keep tabs on employees. Cameras obviously can’t see everything, but it’s hard to imagine a total lack of video evidence when a customer returns after picking up their computer and complains to the manager that it smells like whiskey.

There are plenty of opportunities for Genii to take wrongful actions against a customer they don’t like: they can “accidentally” erase your data, access and steal personal information from the computer’s hard drive, or hold the machine for days or weeks without repairing it. But outright physical abuse of customer property would be quickly caught in any store and, in practice, Apple stores do cover the costs to replace hardware that was either damaged or coincidentally failed while the device was in Apple’s hands, even if the legal agreement the customer signs doesn’t require the store to do so.

“Don’t Mess With the Person Who Handles Your Food”

Customers everywhere, whether seeking a repair of their laptop or simply a meal, are unfortunately subject to the whims of the employees they interact with. “Corrupt” and immoral employees certainly have opportunities to do horrible things, but Apple Retail has many safeguards in place to limit and stop such activities if they do occur.

The advice to not “mess with” people who have the opportunity to return the favor, however, still holds true. Statistically speaking, some Apple Store employees are simply terrible people and, if Gizmodo’s primary source actually did everything he claimed, he’s one of them. Customers can never be completely safe from individuals like that but if you treat employees with respect and understanding, the vast majority will act in kind and incidents like the ones mentioned in the exposé likely won’t occur.