Bamboozled: Refurbishment roulette

BB brandingCell phone providers and manufacturers tout refurbished phones as a way to get a like-new product on the cheap.

That’s not the way the Dolce family sees it. For them, refurbished phones were nothing but a costly headache.

The Sparta family said it took several refurbished iPhone 4 replacements before they had one that worked, consistently, over the long-term. But the real kick in the pants, they said, was that while the initial replacement phones were free, their carrier, Verizon, charged $299 for the final phone replacement.

“The $299 for a refurb phone is really what pushed us over the edge,” Barbara Dolce said.

Verizon said the phone the Dolces returned had water damage. The family said the phone was never dropped in water — their malfunction was completely different than what Verizon claimed — and they shouldn’t have to pay for the replacement.

They purchased the initial iPhone 4 from Verizon in April 2011 for 16-year-old Frank Dolce Jr.

The new phone worked well for several months, but then in February 2012, the “home” button failed to work, they said.

Even though they purchased the phone from Verizon, they took it to an Apple store — a luxury that non-Apple phone users don’t have because no other manufacturer has brick-and-mortar stores.

3413“The Apple store confirmed a problem that was not repairable at the store and gave him another iPhone — a refurbished one,” Barbara Dolce said.

Within a month, the phone started to turn itself off, even when fully charged, she said. The family tried to troubleshoot with Verizon over the telephone, to no avail, so they returned the phone by mail to Verizon.

Verizon sent another refurbished phone, but from the time Frank Jr. opened the box, he said, there was a problem.

“(It) had problems where the phone would not stay turned on and would shut off even when charged,” Frank Jr. said.

The family called Verizon, and it sent yet another replacement phone — the one that caused the brouhaha.


After several weeks with the new phone, Frank Dolce Sr. received an e-mail from Verizon, notifying him that he’d been billed $299 for the replacement phone. The e-mail said the phone they returned didn’t have a manufacturing defect, but water damage had caused the problem.

The family said the phone was never exposed to water, but it wouldn’t stay on from the start.

Frank Sr. spent several days on the phone to dispute the charge, he said, to no avail. In one e-mail exchange, the rep sent photos of what Verizon said was the phone in question.

The family examined the photos, but they weren’t convinced these were photos of the phone they returned.

“The phone jack recharging port area looked amiss,” Barbara Dolce said. “This was not the problem my son experienced. The phone charged correctly.”

Frank Sr. wrote to Verizon again, saying it was impossible to identify that the photo was of Frank Jr.’s phone, and he requested Verizon mail the phone so the Dolces could inspect it.

A Verizon rep responded, saying it doesn’t return damaged devices to customers.

Barbara Dolce speculated that the refurbished phone had “some residual damage but was sent out as a replacement anyway.”

“We got the bill for someone else’s damage,” she said. “I think either they mixed up the phones or gave us a defective phone in the first place.”

Frank Sr. called his credit card company several times at the end of June to dispute the charge. In the end, the lender asked the Dolces to mail the complaint. Frustrated about all the time the phone issues had wasted, the family let it go.

But after reading a recent Bamboozled article, they decided to give it one more try and asked us to intervene.


We asked Verizon to take another look at this case.

Verizon disputed some of the dates the phones were returned by the Dolces, but the family provided packing slips that support their claims.

Whatever the exact dates were, though, is irrelevant.

While we waited for Verizon’s review, we took a closer look at what you get with a refurbished phone.

The real answer? It depends.

Refurbished phones are generally repaired and reset to original specifications. They should work like brand-new phones. Whether or not they do, though, depends on what the problem with the phone was in the first place, and who did the fixing.

“If it’s a cracked screen, no problem. They just replace the screen,” said Jennifer Dolcourt, a senior editor with, a website that offers independent reviews of tech products. “If it’s something with water damage, it’s probably variable, depending on how bad the damage is.”

Dolcourt said she wouldn’t buy a refurb on eBay, but that most from cell phone providers are reliable because they will stand behind the product.

Some refurbished phones never had a technical problem. Some cell carriers allow phones to be returned if a customer decides — in a short time frame — that they don’t like the phone. Those phones can’t be resold as new, because, well, they’re not new anymore. Others are traded in for upgrades, and there’s nothing wrong with the phone. Those are wiped clean and resold as refurbs.

And companies like Verizon rarely do the refurbishing. Instead, they contract with an outside company to do the fixing.

Verizon said its executive customer service relations team was reaching out to the Dolces, and for privacy reasons, it couldn’t discuss the specifics of their case.

It did answer a few questions about refurbs in general.

“Customers may receive a certified like-new replacement phone when they return their phone within the manufacturer’s one-year warranty and the phone has a detectable electrical or mechanical manufacturer defect,” spokeswoman Esmeralda Cameron said.

Cameron said Verizon Wireless treats all customers equally, whether they purchase their iPhone at an Apple store or at a Verizon Wireless store. She said it’s the customer’s choice where they have a phone serviced.

“Today’s smart phones are essentially mini-computers,” she said. “We also recommend customers consider purchasing insurance against loss, theft or damage.”

The Dolces didn’t have insurance on the iPhone 4, but they did have a conference call with a Verizon rep.

“He just kept reading the policy and was not willing to budge, anywhere,” said Frank Jr., who insists he opened the phone box on his bed and it was never near water.

Frank Jr., who paid his parents back for the initial phone, the $299 replacement phone and pays the $30 monthly service fee with his own money, said he feels his money “has gone down the drain.”

“That’s $600 I’ve paid for this phone, which they now give out for free with a two-year plan, and I still pay for the monthly service fee,” he said.

We thought that was the end of the case, but the Dolces received another call from the company several days later.

“(Verizon) is going to give us $136 credit, which is what we would have paid for phone if we had insurance — in recognition of us being customers since 1999 and always paying on time,” Barbara Dolce said. “The catch is he wants Frank to sign a non-disclosure agreement. We are not inclined to do so at this point.”

She said it’s more important for people to learn more about refurbs than it is for the family to get their money back.

The Dolces said if they ever get another refurbished phone, they will scrutinize the phone, photograph it from all angles and record the serial numbers.

“The whole process illustrates that whatever goes on with the refurbishing process is not foolproof,” Barbara Dolce said.