My personal battle with Sprint to get an iPhone4s unlocked

Note: This Part 1 of a two-parter. You can read the conclusion here.

First, some background:

Firm pressure is coming from the FCC on all cell phone companies about this issue of not unlocking mobile devices (including a deadline backed by a threat of regulatory action by the FCC):

  • On November 14, 2013, Tom Wheeler, chairman for the FCC, sent a letter to the president of the CTIA insisting on a voluntary policy of unlocking of all cell phones that meet certain requirements, such as a finished contract. You can read the letter on the FCC website.
  • The letter states that the cell phone carriers ought to voluntarily establish a policy to unlock paid-for phones before the start of the December holiday shopping season or start facing regulatory action.

So, who or what is the CTIA?

  • According to Sprint’s own site, the “CTIA is an international nonprofit membership organization that has represented the wireless communications industry since 1984. It also coordinates consumer information efforts that include voluntary industry guidelines.”

In response (about a month later) to the FCC’s insistence in the above letter, the major cell service providers announced they plan to  [eventually] comply. The leading edge of the announcement pledges that they will “move quickly,” yet digging in reveals  some sad notions about what those words  mean to them. Hint: they want months to comply with some, but not all, of the provisions (and they get to choose which ones), and they want up to a year to comply with all of the provisions. That’s not my definition of “quickly.”

  • As of December 12, 2013, a public release by CTIA stated in part, “We are pleased to announce AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless agreed to adopt a voluntary set of six principles for unlocking of consumers’ mobile phones and tablets. We will recommend that this set of principles be included in the CTIA Consumer Code for Wireless Service, in accordance with CTIA’s bylaws. Once they have been adopted, the companies will move quickly to implement these principles.”

On Saturday, February 1, 2014, I spent over an hour on the phone (and on hold many times) with Sprint, eventually speaking to three different people, of which the second (Kimberly) and third (Maria) were those whose names I could understand well enough to include here.

First call:

The customer service rep quickly looked up my account by my old Sprint number, and verified my identity. I told her we had ported our numbers out due to Sprint’s refusal to work with us on lowering our monthly bill, and I asked if my final bill was paid and if the account was squared away. After putting me on hold several times, with me waiting long enough that the whole call was longer than about 15 minutes, she finally confirmed that the account was finalized; the last bill was paid, and we were square. I then told her that the iPhone 4s on the closed account, which was purchased and completely paid for, needed to be unlocked. Since the account was squared away, I requested her help with unlocking it. She told me she would be happy to help, and then she instantly hung up on me, and she never called back. This was not a “dropped call.” Whether intentionally or accidentally, she hung up on me.

Second call:

I called Sprint back, and got Kimberly. Kimberly was unable to find my record at all, even though I had been an excellent customer of Sprint’s for between 9 and 10 years. Even though the previous Sprint rep had found my account within seconds, this rep, Kimberly, said no records could be found matching the info I was giving. This went on for some time. I insisted until she finally elevated it to the attention of a supervisor, and after being on hold several times, with a combined waiting time of over 20 minutes, they finally “found” my account record. She then had me wait on hold while she verified the account was paid in full and finalized. She then offered to connect me to the Tech Team to get the phone unlocked.

Still on second call—holding for Tech Team, who never picked up:

After about another 10 minutes on hold, Kimberly finally came back on the line, and told me that the Tech Team was having high call volumes, and she asked me if I would please hang up, wait about a half an hour, and call them back directly. She gave me the direct number of the Tech Team. I told her that I had already waited on hold a long time, and that by her taking me out of their queue and speaking to me again, she had put me to the back of the line, and that if I hung up and called back, I would still be at the back of the line. I asked her to please put me back through to the Tech Team. She then put me on hold, and after another wait, she said the Tech Team would not be talking to me. She said the Tech Team told her to tell me that no iOS devices can be unlocked. I informed her that is patently false, and that other carriers unlock Apple iOS phone devices. (For proof that iOS devices can be unlocked, see Apple’s website.) Over the course of more holds and wait time, Kimberly told me several different stories, all obviously false, about why no iOS devices can be unlocked. I pressed her about the error of each story, and she then decided to get a superior on the line.

Still on second call—switching me to a superior:

Maria, the proclaimed superior of Kimberly, came into the conversation. She flatly claimed that iOS devices cannot be unlocked. I countered that they can be. [Just because iPhones are not unlocked via an MSL code (aka “unlock code”) does not mean they cannot be unlocked. See Apple’s website for proof.] She then claimed that they can only be unlocked for international travel. I explained why that is not true, and that we’re not discussing Sprint’s policy about travel or their desire to limit the phone to such, but the reality of what is right and doable and needs to be done. She then asked if I had updated the phone, seemingly (and amazingly), trying to hint or to pretend that legitimate iOS updates to the phone might possibly have something to do with their inability to unlock the phone. She stopped short of plainly making such a statement. She then said simply that they “cannot unlock iOS devices.” I told her that they can. She then actually claimed her refusal was based on a new policy that was just made earlier this month. (That is the exact opposite of the actual policy made only a few days ago). I tried to speak at that point, telling her that other carriers unlock iOS phones, that only Sprint seems to be this way, and she repeatedly attempted to interrupt, speaking while I was speaking, so that the call became rather tense. Eventually I was permitted to speak, but she was not budging.

Maria then had the gall to claim that they (Sprint), “used to be able to unlock iOS devices, but,” she said, “we have lost that info.”

I replied, “You cannot be serious.”

Maria actually said, “I am serious. We cannot unlock your phone.”

I told her that Sprint could indeed unlock it, and that she needed to connect me to someone who could help me get that done. I told her that if someone did not get the phone unlocked for me, my next communication would be with the FCC and the Attorney General (which I followed through with, later that night). I asked her if Sprint was determined to beg for a class action lawsuit.

She then told me she was going to, “have management call me back.”

I replied, “I thought you said you were management.”

She then said, with a pause before and during, “I am management, butI am going to have the Legal Team call you back.” 

No one called back that day. I somehow doubt anyone will.

Undeterred:

I have already spoken to another carrier that told me that an unlocked Sprint iPhone 4/4s was compatible with their network system, and so this issue is worth quite a bit of money to me. I will not give up. If Sprint does not help me get this device unlocked, I will persist in bugging their support staff until, in the end, Sprint will have wasted hundreds of dollars paid to its mal-trained, stubborn, and discourteous customer service reps, just in dealing with me alone. It would behoove Sprint to simply do right and unlock this phone.

Note: See the all-new info in the conclusion of this saga: 3 Lies That Sprint Employees “Tell” (+ My Success Activating Sprint iPhone on Net10)

18 thoughts on “My personal battle with Sprint to get an iPhone4s unlocked”

  1. What a nightmare! I concur that you should continue to be “the squeaky wheel.” Perhaps you could post a link to this blog on their Facebook page. Or maybe a note to the Better Business Bureau would be in order. Does your local TV news station have a consumer advocate/consumer affairs reporter? having the local version of “Mike Wallace” do an expose would be a nightmare scenario for the company, and might be the fastest way to get Management motivated to solve your issue.

    Every company drops the ball occasionally, as we are all human. It’s when they drop the ball, refuse to admit it, and refuse to fix it, that we have to resort to the power of negative publicity.

    1. The content of the blog post was previously emailed to the president of Sprint, the chairman of the FCC, and the WV State Attorney General. I also stumbled upon a consumer advocate site, where a man named Christopher Elliot had written about the nightmare issue of Sprint not unlocking a phone (http://elliott.org/problem-solved/sprint-said-it-would-unlock-my-phone-did-it-break-its-promise/). I wrote to Elliot, pointing to this content. He replied saying he intends to write about this topic more in the future.

      I went another “round” with Sprint today, with very interesting results. I have intention of posting an update in the body of the article. I am waiting on the arrival of a SIM card I have ordered. If the SIM card winds up proving I now have the phone unlocked, I will reflect that in the update. If not, then the tone of the update will obviously be different, and I will move toward what the FCC calls an “informal complaint” (which, according to the FCC, is not a trifling matter despite the name, as “informal” simply means I don’t have to hire a lawyer to file this type of complaint).

    2. Yes my next action is to contact the BBB, this is rediculous how Sprint continues to lie and say they cannot un-lock a device just to be so selfish I. Not wanting to loose customers!!! He’ll that is how you loose them by not complying to the “Customers” request! Sprint will never earn my services!

  2. Hi Doug…. I am now involved in the iphone4s unlock game too….
    Sprint provided me with the MSL Code for my iphone but I am informed by Apple tech support that the MSL Code is on no use in the unlocking process and that the unlock must be done by Sprint.

    I’ve spent two days on various tries to unlock, find the unlock procedure, and on calls with Sprint and Apple now.

    Sprint seems to be as bad as Comcast on trying to “hold onto customer” by stonewalling. They have made me very angry over a three year period and this is the straw that will make sure I don’t go back to Sprint for a long time.

    I’d love to hear if others are getting the run around at this point in time. Nov 2014.

    1. According to updated confessions by Sprint on their own website (for instance, here: http://www.sprint.com/legal/unlocking_policy.html) they solemnly pledge that all phones made & sold after February 11, 2015, will be made so that they can be unlocked, and they will actually allow the unlocking. That’s a backhanded way of saying, “For any phones made & sold prior to that date: Sorry, but you’re just out of luck.” You won’t succeed in getting them to unlock it, but you don’t need to get them to unlock it if you want to switch to a provider that buys data and talk minutes at wholesale and resales them, such as Ting Mobile or Net10, as they can use Sprint towers for your Sprint device, at about half the cost of being with Sprint. I’m with Net10 and am happy with the service, the price, and the coverage.

    2. Terry, I replied to you a moment ago with info, but…

      I also wanted to make sure you knew about part 2 of the series, available here: http://www.dougjoseph.net/2014/02/3-lies-that-sprint-employees-tell-my-success-activating-sprint-iphone-on-net10/

      And also wanted to link you to a good article that sums up the ridiculous mistreatment that Sprint shamelessly foists upon its own customers, here: http://consumerist.com/2014/04/23/sprint-well-totally-unlock-any-phone-you-buy-after-february-11-2015/

  3. Hey Doug,

    Sprint has won the battle but not the war. I have three useless iPhones. Sprint by policy does not know how to unlock the devise – willful ignorance – enforced by senior officials at Sprint. Sprint has permanent lost another customer. See Wikipedi for further references.

    1. Those iPhones you have are not useless yet; see part 2 of my series for how you can activate them with other companies for about half what Sprint charges. Sprint has all but admitted that they deliberately designed (and had manufactured) iPhones customized in a way that they either lack some needful hardware or have some hardwired hindrance to being unlocked for domestic use. They are pledging to turn over a new leaf as of Feb 11, 2015. In the meantime, they *really* cheated all their iPhone customers who purchased from them prior to that date, without divulging the lack of being able to unlock. I smell class action lawsuit possibilities. They would deserve it.

  4. There is NO known hardware lock. Sprint has designed a system internal to Sprint where it is forbibben to acknowledge that it is possible to genuinely unlock the GSM side of the iPhone. I have found no person with technical knowledge of the iPhone who will stated there is a “hardware lock” of any type. Yes, the iPhones identification numbers are in a database that determines if a phone is “locked”. And only Sprint has the legal authority to make changes to the database. Others in the telecom world can see the database but cannot change it. There is no technical issue at all. There is only a procedural issue and management decision which is enforcing the “We cannot unlock an iPhone”. It is a data field in a database that Sprint will not allow it’s employees to change out of pure greed.

    1. That’s what I suspected since the earliest days of my research into this. Sprint’s language implies or hints at a mechanical/hardware limitation without actually saying so. Since they are masters of deceit, that probably indicates there is no actual mechanical/hardware limitation.

    2. Even if there is a mechanical/hardware limitation, such would have been the invention of Apple, built at their request. Either way, Sprint is the problem! The fault lies with them, squarely. I still think there is a possibility of class action suit.

  5. I would be more than happy to join in the lawsuit. Multiple lies from multiple people over multiple days. Loss of money over not getting the phone unlocked. Sprint service is horrible, their people are trained to lie, and I would never in my life ever tell anyone to go to Sprint, ever. We have had dropped calls on a daily basis, missed texts, and poor coverage. We bought a new phone because they said the old one was bad. Then we upgraded the phone because they said that was the problem. Then we had them send us two boosters. All the time they said they were working on it. So if there is a lawsuit, contact us we will join in.

  6. I will join too! They refuse to unlock my Galaxy S5 even though it has been paid off. They keep telling me whichever carrier I take it to next has to unlock it. WHAT??
    There is a law in place. Sprint needs to follow it or be held accountable

  7. My name is Gemma. I had the same experienced tonight. Sprint refused to unlocked my 2 iPhones. I was at Verizon to switch service. Same story, will take 2-3 days to unlock the phone. Hostage!! I own both phones! I am looking for a private lawyer to sue Sprint!!

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