Busted iPhones add up to big business


Anthony Fletch poses with his iPhone 5 after being the first customer Friday at an Apple store in Paris. (Jacky Naegelen/Reuters)
Michelle Singletary
Columnist September 22, 2012

I’ve long felt that too many people have become too attached to their smartphones.

But not only do people have an unhealthy and often annoying attachment to these devices, they are also spending billions (yes, billions with a b) to repair broken phones so they can continue their addictions to talking, tweeting, texting, downloading stuff from the Internet and playing games.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Consumers have spent $5.9 billion to repair, replace or pay insurance deductibles on damaged iPhones since the devices went on sale in 2007, according to SquareTrade, a leading provider of consumer electronics protection plans. The San Francisco-based company surveyed more than 2,000 iPhone users and found that 30 percent of users have damaged their device in the past year.

“We were shocked at the numbers,” said Ty Shay, SquareTrade’s chief marketing officer.

And get this: Of all the people surveyed, 9 percent damaged their phone by dropping it in the toilet. I have to ask: Really, the toilet? Then again, how many times have you been in a public restroom and heard someone talking on a cellphone? Some conversations can wait. In many cases, Shay said, the phone fell out of a pocket or clip-on.

Five percent of users have accidentally put their phone in the washing machine. The liquids most commonly spilled on phones: water (43 percent), soda (19 percent), beer and wine (12 percent) and coffee and tea (12 percent). The most frequent way people damage their phone is dropping it.

Shay said people often resign themselves to keep a damaged device because it’s costly to replace an iPhone if you aren’t eligible for special price breaks, like the ones you get when you sign up for a long-term contract with a carrier. Eleven percent of iPhone owners keep using the phone with a cracked screen, while 6 percent have taped up their phone. My husband has cracked his iPhone screen twice. The survey found that 17 percent of iPhone users have damaged their device more than once.

It’s no surprise that the survey found that young iPhone users are more likely to have accidents. One in two iPhone owners under 35 has damaged a phone. I certainly can attest to this statistic. My husband and I finally agreed to allow our 14-year-old son to have a cellphone. He rides a bus in the afternoon, and it’s a convenient way to keep track of his arrival to the drop-off location. And notice I didn’t say he “needed” a phone.

At any rate, we gave our son my husband’s 3G iPhone after he traded up to the 4S version. My son, bless his heart, had it for just a couple of months. It’s now broken and can’t be fixed.

It seems he had the phone in the bathroom watching something on the Internet. He set it on the sink to take a shower, he said. It would appear that the steam from the shower caused water damage to the phone. At least that’s what the Apple store employee guessed when I took the phone in to see if it could be repaired. My son did not get a replacement iPhone. We bought him a lower-cost Android smartphone.

So why are we so clumsy with our phones?

“Our phones are such a big part of our lives,” Shay said. “We wake up and it’s next to our bed. We take them everywhere, and accidents can happen anytime. A case doesn’t protect against all the things that can damage your phone.”

So the question is: How can you protect a phone that gets damaged in an accident? Cellphone carriers will insure your phone for about $4 to $8 a month with a $25 to $100 or more deductible, according to Consumer Reports. But the companies may replace your damaged phone with a repaired or refurbished one.

Consumer Reports doesn’t recommend getting insurance or extended warranties. Instead, the magazine says to hold onto your old phone until your new phone’s contract ends. If you damage your newer phone, just reactivate the old one and use it until you qualify for a free or low-cost phone.

I generally agree with Consumer Reports about warranties and insurance on electronic devices. But considering how vital smartphones have become to people, I can see where one might want to pay for insurance.

If you decide to get a plan, shop around. Check consumer ratings of the companies offering insurance. An insurance plan with SquareTrade costs $99 for two years of coverage with a $50 deductible, Shay said.

Or how about this as a radical way to protect your device and save money on repairs or insurance? Put the phone in a drawer sometimes. At least stop taking it into the bathroom.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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