About Me

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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

I lost my phone: a cautionary tale from the back alleys of the Internet

For many years I was the happy owner of an out-of-contract Blackberry. It served me well and I saw no need to upgrade to a snazzier model. Then one fateful day in April it disappeared. Vanished, somewhere between my house and my community garden, never to be seen again.

So I plunged into the murky world of the online phone market. First, I did a quick survey of Facebook friends of android versus apple, with no sensible resolution. Then I realised that Google already had all my contacts, calendar and dirty laundry, so decided they were the path of least resistance. I researched the best phones, found the best deal and placed my order. I decided to go for a refurbished Samsung. Apparently this was the 'best phone in the universe in 2011' and I figured buying a refurbished model would be good for the planet by helping reduce the global mountain of WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment).

My new, refurbished phone arrived. I spent a late night and a morning setting it up with my email, Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn... and tried to call my brother to tell him the good news. He could hear me loud and clear, but I couldn't hear him (nothing new there according to him). I had a beautiful little pocket sized computer, but no phone. Back to Google, Samsung and the retailer and I deduced that this is a hardware fault and posted the phone back to the warehouse and awaited the replacement.

Replacement arrives, I waste another sleepless night setting it up again, and I am away. Two months go by, and I am more or less happy with the phone until one day I decide to take it jogging. People in London will remember June as wet month. The Samsung couldn't cope with the moisture in the pocket of my raincoat. It survived the run but peacefully passed away somewhere in the third set of the Wimbledon men's final later that day (make up your own Murray metaphor).

Back to Google and the forums and I deduce that the phone is dead. I phone the retailer and they tell me I can take it in to their high street partner to see if I am eligible for repair or replacement under the manufacturer's warranty. I take the phone in and am given a dinky little replacement for calls and SMS. Over the next few days I follow the progress of my repair on-line and by the end of the week the diagnosis is confirmed. Samsung warranty does not cover British summer rain.

I am still in contract for the dead Samsung and don't have insurance so I head on-line again to find a good deal on a lower spec, HTC handset. I find a very good deal with what looks like a UK based retailer promising delivery within 2 days and fast refunds, and place my order. After 3 days the order hasn't shipped so I Google the name of the retailer and find that it is not actually in the UK but is based in Hong Kong, and many, many people are displeased with their service and refund performance. I decide to hold tight and after about 10 days I rent a car and drive to collect my new phone from the delivery company warehouse.

Eager to rejoin the third generation I start up my new phone and it speaks to me in Arabic. Back to Google and the forums and I figure out how to navigate the menus to change the script and spend another late night setting everything up. I am an Australian in London pretending to speak 'English (Lebanon)' to set up a phone that thinks its 'home' time zone is Taipei.

A few days later the Cameroonian Olympic team disappears and I go back to the high street repair centre to return the dinky little courtesy phone and pick up the dead Samsung. By a stroke of luck the repairers have 'lost' my dead handset along with 79 others in the consignment from the workshop and are obliged to give me yet another 'refurbished' handset as a replacement.

I head straight for eBay. Three days later a winning bidder agrees to pay almost the exact amount I paid for the multicultural HTC. He has a 100% positive rating from 53 transactions. Four days after that he admits he can't actually pay. I notice that the positive feedback is for eBay Sri Lanka. This would seem to be his first transaction in the UK and I charitably assume he is a new arrival. We agree to the no sale, I get my fees refunded and relist the item, this time with a 'buy-now' price slightly less than the cost of the HTC. Lucky me, WillliamsGary772 buys the phone within minutes! 

A few confusing emails and several eBay and PayPal invoices later, WilliamsGary772 asks that I send the phone to his daughter in Nigeria, rather than to his address in London, since it is a gift for her and he is in Russia on business. Some eBay-esque receipts and requests for shipping numbers arrive in my email inbox, but no funds have made it to my PayPal account. A call and an email to eBay confirm that WilliamsGary772 is indeed a fraudster. I spend the rest of the morning changing all my passwords on all my accounts, with the fervour of a teenage girl who has just found her brother's skinny mate sorting through her undies draw. The phone is relisted, without a 'buy-now' price. I have already had two more requests from West Africa for cash sales. I will leave it listed until the auction expires in 3 days. If I still haven't found a legitimate buyer I will take my friend Patrick's advice and throw the Samsung in the river. I may stick some pins in it first.

So what lessons do I have to share?
1. The Internet is a dark and murky place.
2. The best way to buy a phone is to walk down your high street, walk into a well known retailer, speak to someone behind the counter and sign a contract for the phone you want and the data you need.
3. Cherish your Blackberry. Do not let it out of your sight for a minute. They have cosmic powers.