A Week in Apple Activation Lock Hell

Review of recovering an Apple iPad Air from Activation Lock with the help of Apple.

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Please note before reading this entire article that the iPad was eventually unlocked after a week of frustration but only because a second answer to a security question was finally guessed right. Another path with Apple was also being pursued in parallel, as described below, but it's uncertain whether this would have succeeded or not.

We all make mistakes and mine was colossal by not recording our new Apple ID's password and three security answers Christmas morning 2013. If I had, I wouldn't have been recently locked out of our family's iPad Air. And as would become painfully evident later in this ordeal, the backup email address used for our Apple ID should never have been abandoned; otherwise, this could have been used to unlock the device.

This iPad was a reliable workhorse entertainment & educational device for my kids for three years and was still working great. However, for some unknown reason the Activation Lock triggered on a recent Saturday morning in February 2017. At the time, it was running iOS version 10.0.2.

I found out about it when my child brought it to me. My reaction: "Hmmm, what is this screen? I never saw it before".

activation lock screen

Both of our hearts sank as we realized we didn't know the password. It seemed almost impossible that no one had entered a password in the device for three years, but this was evidently the case. After trying a few different guesses, the password was disabled, and we were required to reset the password.

In order to recover our Apple ID (reset the password), we visited Apple's iforgot page, where I was given several chances to answer two of three security questions. Yes, I knew my birthday and my favorite super hero8, but I didn't know the answers to the other two questions! And without knowing at least two of the answers to my three questions set in 2013, I now owned a $500 brick.

Sunday ( day 2)

On and off during the day I researched the issue and tried answering the security questions. After a few incorrect tries, the site would disable trying again for several hours. This was getting frustrating and many of the support and discussion sites I visited stated that an Apple iPad owner is completely out of luck if in my situation. However, there are also some sites (e.g., youtube) that show how the lock can be bypassed. I chose to leave this as a last resort, which ultimately wasn't needed. I didn't want to do anything that was going to cause my iPad to disconnect from my secure WiFi.

Please note that there are phishing / malware schemes out there related to Activation Lock that require users to download programs or zip files to unlock their devices. Don't do it!. And on the flip side, phishing is used to steal Apple ID's in order to trigger an Activation Lock and then a ransom payment. What a mess!

Monday ( day 3)

I called Apple Care (1-800-MY-APPLE) to discuss my dilemma. Robert explained to me that I enabled the activation lock feature when I enabled "find my iPhone" back in 2013. I protested that it should have been explained clearly that I was not only enabling a find-my-device feature but also a permanent lock out feature. Clearly, Apple needs to do a better job of explaining the potential lockout to its users before it is enabled. Apple should also periodically remind users that they must have access to their backup email address or know their security questions to recover a lost password in the event of lockout, so actions can be taken proactively before a lockout occurs.

Now, since I didn't know two of three answers to my security questions, I was offered the alternative to submit a copy of the original receipt. Fortunately, I had it and uploaded it after receiving an email that contained my new case ID for the lockout.

Tuesday (day 4 )

I called Apple Care back to see if my receipt was properly received and processed. I may have been a little too testy on the call because we were somehow disconnected after I insisted "Apple went overboard" with the activation lock feature. I can't be sure what caused the disconnect, but Robert never called me back...

Next I had the pleasure of speaking with Audrey. She had a very nice demeanor, and we went through my case in detail. She acknowledged that my receipt was received, and she initiated a transfer of it to the "find my iPhone" team. I'm glad I called because, I don't think the case would have proceeded otherwise. Audrey told me that it could take up to a week for the "find my iPhone" team to reset my password.

Thursday (day 6)

I received a confusing and cryptic email from "do-not-reply@apple.com"

What could this mean?

Thankfully later that night a possible new answer occurred to me for one of my two unknown security questions. I rushed to my computer and visited the iforgot page. Fortunately, I was presented the two questions I wanted. I entered my favorite super hero and my new guess, and I was in! Next, I was redirected to a page that allowed me to set a new password. First try: too weak; Second try: page timed out, and I needed to start over! And since I have referred to this week as hell, you might be able to guess what came next. That's right, every subsequent try for resetting my password, I was presented the question that still has me stumped. I kept trying until I'm locked out for the day.

Friday (day 7)

I called Apple Care with my case ID and was connected with wonderful Julie. I explained the situation to her, and she let me try my two known questions on the phone. Yes, I now knew the two answers, so I was finally near the end. She told me that I would receive an email on Saturday that would give me a three hour window to reset my password.

I also asked Julie about the cryptic email I had received the day before from Apple. She told me that the receipt was rejected because it didn't have the serial number on it. I explained that I never saw a serial number on a receipt in my life, and I had bought this iPad from one of the biggest brick & mortar retailers in the world. Threfore, it's unknown whether submitting a receipt would have ever yielded an unlock.

Saturday ( day 8, unlocking day! )

The password reset email arrived. I had three hours to reset my password, but can you believe I first had to answer two of my existing security questions? Thankfully, it was the two I knew. It's unclear whether this was just good fortune or purposeful that my dead question didn't surface its ugly face again.

Some Final Notes and Thoughts

  1. There is a lot of noise in the tech industry about doing away with passwords because us humans have a difficult time dealing with them. This author believes this is misguided and that in this instance it was the tech provider that misused password technology. It's mind boggling how my family was never required to enter a password for this iPad in the three years prior to this lock fiasco.
  2. It's great that Apple is taking theft deterrence so seriously, but there needs to be a cardinal rule in place that manufacturers should never brick a user's device and should make it painfully clear before enabling any feature that may do so. As an engineer, I always remember that a one-in-a-billion glitch on a processor clock shows up about once a second. There aren't a billion iPads out there yet, but there are enough where Apple should realize that customers are going to forget credentials that they may set up in haste or years before (e.g., Christmas morning 2013).
  3. At some point during the week, one of the Apple Care advisors told me that my iPad could be unlocked by visiting an Apple Store and bringing my original receipt. I was and am skeptical about this. I tried to verify this with my nearest store (about an hour away) on the phone after unlocking my device, but the Apple Care VR system doesn't seem to want to connect callers with their local store directly.
  4. Not all Apple Care advisors are equal. Audrey and Julie were fantastic. Unfortunately, the two gentlemen I spoke with weren't. If you get an adviser with an attitude, hang up and call back.
  5. Official information on Find My iPhone Activation Lock
  6. Apple's Support Page
  7. Apple's Feedback Page
  8. "Favorite super hero" is a fictious question, and Mr. Jimmy is a fictious name.

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