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The Mystery of Dustin Curtis’s Locked Apple ID

There has been a lot of buzz in the Apple world lately about designer Dustin Curtis and his locked Apple ID. It’s a long and winding tale, but one that’s disturbing for those of us who are heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem. In short, Dustin’s Apple ID ended up locked such that he couldn’t download or update apps, nor could he use Apple Music. His iCloud calendar stopped syncing, and even Handoff stopped working. However, iMessage and Photos continued to work.

How It Happened

The good news is that Apple has reactivated Dustin’s account, but the concerns remain. Let’s try to piece together a timeline of the story:

  1. Sometime in January: The bank account number tied to Dustin’s Apple Card account changed, causing autopay to fail.
  2. Mid-January: Dustin bought an M1-based MacBook Pro with his Apple Card. Apple offered a trade-in credit for an old MacBook Pro, and Dustin was told he would receive a trade-in kit and would have two weeks to send it in.
  3. The trade-in kit never arrived.
  4. Apple apparently tried to charge the Apple Card.
  5. Mid-February: Apple sent Dustin an email asking about the trade-in. Dustin replied that he never received the kit but didn’t receive a response from Apple.
  6. February 15th: Apple sent another email saying that it was unable to collect full payment for a new iPhone (that was erroneous, and was presumably an automated message) and that Dustin’s iTunes and Mac App Store accounts would be disabled until he resolved the situation with an Apple Card specialist at Goldman Sachs. Dustin missed this email initially, finding it only in a search after Apple locked his account.
  7. Late February: Dustin discovered that his account had been locked. He immediately called Apple Support and was told that they could do nothing except escalate the issue and that he should hopefully get a call within a day.
  8. Two days later, Dustin called Apple Support again. The representative said something about Apple Card but couldn’t help because Apple ID was a different department. The support rep emailed that department—email was apparently the only way to contact them.
  9. Dustin found the email he missed earlier and corrected his Apple Card info. However, when he tried to reply to that email, he received an automated “Address not found” bounce.
  10. Dustin used Apple Business Chat to contact Goldman Sachs support, who said they would email the Apple ID support department.
  11. An Apple ID support rep called Dustin to tell him that his accounts would be restored in 3–5 days. That happened, and all is back to normal.

In a statement to 9to5Mac, Apple denied that the issue was at all related to Apple Card:

We apologize for any confusion or inconvenience we may have caused for this customer. The issue in question involved a restriction on the customer’s Apple ID that disabled App Store and iTunes purchases and subscription services, excluding iCloud. Apple provided an instant credit for the purchase of a new MacBook Pro, and as part of that agreement, the customer was to return their current unit to us. No matter what payment method was used, the ability to transact on the associated Apple ID was disabled because Apple could not collect funds. This is entirely unrelated to Apple Card.

However, developer and blogger Michael Tsai questions Apple’s explanation:

As far as I can tell, it really is an Apple Card-specific issue. With a regular credit card, you can imagine that Apple would have pre-authorized a charge for the trade-in in case it didn’t arrive. And if the bank account linked to the card changed, that would not be Apple’s concern. Apple would add the additional charge, which would go on the card account, the issuer would pay Apple, and then from Apple’s point of view there would be no debt.

Many commentators have suggested that this situation was Dustin’s fault, and while that’s at least partially true, it also exposes some problems at Apple’s end.

Dave Mark at The Loop said:

And to be clear, I think I am less concerned that Apple disabled Dustin’s account as I am that it took so long to address the issue. If the call to Apple customer support had made the issue clear immediately, a couple of clicks would have resolved this. As is, and if true, looks like the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.

At the very least, it seems that Apple has fallen prey to what happens to so many large companies: entire departments don’t communicate with each other, aren’t aware of broader company policies, and can’t resolve problems outside of their direct sphere of influence.

For the rest of us, Dustin’s story throws a spotlight on the danger of doing too much business with a single company. When you buy your hardware from Apple, purchase your software through the App Store, and rely on subscriptions to Apple cloud services, paying for it all with an Apple credit card, you’re signing up for both great convenience and a certain level of risk. That’s not necessarily a bad strategy, but as the 19th-century industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie recommended, “Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket.

In this case, watching the basket would entail paying attention to the effect that bank account numbers changing might have, making calendar reminders for known deadlines (like the trade-in kit arriving and its two-week return period), and creating an email strategy that reduces the chance of missing an important message.

It’s also worth putting some thought into how you would work around such a problem if it happened to you. Most Apple services aren’t mission-critical—you could probably go without Apple TV+ or Apple Fitness+ for a while—but what about iCloud Mail and iCloud Drive? Would the loss of iCloud Calendar syncing be problematic? Ensuring the continuity of certain services is yet another facet of a modern backup strategy (see “The Role of Bootable Duplicates in a Modern Backup Strategy,” 23 February 2021).

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Comments About The Mystery of Dustin Curtis’s Locked Apple ID

Notable Replies

  1. In other discussions of this case, I thought that part of the issue was that Dustin had received the return box and instructions and had misplaced them. Your explanation does make a lot of sense.

    My experience in dealing with returning items for credit (usually a trade in or part of an upgrade programs) is that Apple sends you an email when the package for returning the old item is shipped. When that happens (actually for any shipping notice), I track via the information given. With most Apple products, I end up tracking both via Apple and the shipping company. Tools such as the Parcel app or the Deliveries app make this easy.

    I actually had the reverse happen to me this summer on an order from Costco.I stopped seeing tracking updates for about 2 weeks. I called their customer service and had the item reshipped. A day later, the original arrived followed by the replacement a week later.

  2. Very disturbing. Thanks for this writeup.

    I would supplement Tsai’s challenge that it does, indeed, involve Apple Card by the simple fact that what ultimately fixed his Apple ID was the call to Goldman Sachs.

    And I agree that getting locked isn’t the biggest issue; the painful and slow unlock is scary.

    Makes me also think about whether that feature (that I don’t use) to unlock your Mac using Apple ID could have also landed him unable to even unlock his Mac. Or his iPhone?

    Very scary.

  3. If this had been a debit card purchase the exact same thing would have happened, so not related to the Apple Card.

    And there were calls to various Apple support departments AND to Goldman Sachs, so no one but Apple can say what ultimately fixed it.

    Also, look at this from Apple’s perspective and this looks like the sort of fraud that they are certainly dealing with every single day, so from their point of view, locking the account is perfectly reasonable to try to lock down before more fraud is perpetrated.

    The lesson here is “pay attention to your trade in window and contact Apple (or whomever) BEFORE that window expires and if your bank account number changes, you have to be hyper vigilant about all sorts of things. A friend of mine had to change all of his accounts about a year ago and is STILL dealing with fallout from that,

  4. Having just gone through my own issue with bizarre behavior by Apple’s payment processing systems for an on-line order (a combination of paying by both credit card and gift cards, a corporate discount on some items, and a trade-in of old hardware), I found that their payment processing is opaque to the first line support we customers can talk to. When something goes wrong with a payment, they cannot see what’s really going on and need to refer it to the next level. For as good a technology company Apple is, their payment processing system is appallingly bad. There is no way I would even consider getting or using an Apple Card.

  5. Th inability of front line support to see financial information, including transactions, is (of course) intentional and a way in which Apple protects their customers data. Yes, it is less convenient than others but also afar more secure.

    Security is always a balance against convenience. Personally, I will trade inconvenience for security.

    Even the second tier support cannot see financial info. They can, for example, int four digits from a customer and be told if they match the last four digits of the card. They cannot see the digits, and they can only try three or four different cards before they are locked out.

    Not like when I call my credit card company and the person on the line can see every purchase I’ve made in the last year before they even start talking to me.

  6. There’s security and then there’s paranoia. I’ll start a new topic to go into all the bizarre stuff that happened with my order (don’t want to clutter this one up) but when the Apple rep tells you their system says you were refunded $X and all you see is $Y (Y < X), there’s something wrong with the system.

  7. Adding to my reply above, restricting what the first level reps can see may be a good idea but why restrict what the customer can directly see when securely logged into their own account? My confidence in Apple’s systems doing things correctly was destroyed by their inability to give me accurate information about what was happening behind the scenes and by the fact there was no rhyme or reason behind how certain parts of it were processed. So the biggest reason I would not consider Apple Card is I need the real-time visibility of what is happening in my financial life and I have no confidence I would have that if I let Apple into it.

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