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December 16, 2010

Don't Buy iTunes Gift Cards

I’m kind of in to iTunes. They had me with sorting and cover view. I love jukeboxes and iTunes essentially turns my laptop into jukebox that plays on the stereo speakers. In about 5 minutes you can download and burn to CD almost anything. My first experience was finding, buying, downloading, burning and listening to an old out-of-print CAKE album all in less time than it would have taken to drive to one store. Never mind the fact that I already had been to 20 stores over many years looking for the album.

I’ve invested literally hundreds of hours into creating my laptop jukebox using iTunes. I have thousands of albums. So many that I bought a RAID 1 network accessible drive to store everything in the library. On my laptop, I keep about 1500 hours (70 days) of music at any given time. I find this gives me flexibility in listening and still keeps some of my hard drive usable for other things. When I say, I’m kind of in to iTunes, I mean that I have devoted my life to it and you will find few that have mastered it as I have.

I am an iTunes expert and a large percentage of my invested wealth is in Apple stock. I have two iPods, the iPhone and a Macbook Pro that I carry around everywhere I go. It’s safe to say that I am a loyal Mac guy.

That’s why the layman might think that a home run gift for me would be an iTunes Gift Card. But the layman would be woefully wrong. No one should ever buy iTunes Gift Cards for any reason! Please stop buying them right now. Take them back if you have already purchased them. This is me talking, Mac devotee and iTunes enthusiast; I know what I am talking about and nobody should ever buy iTunes Gift Cards.

Don’t trust me? But I just told you I was and expert and everything, what could be more convincing? Oh, evidence. OK I’ve got that too.

My main reasons are the cards go to waste, DRM, and there are better alternatives.

Wasted Money

This is a problem with all gift cards, but it’s a massive problem with iTunes gift cards. You have to have an account tied to a credit card to even begin to use the cards. Then you have to have computer file management skills to keep them. Even if you are able to buy music with the cards; a hard drive crash means the files are gone forever and you’ll have to buy them again. Even though iTunes knows what you have downloaded, you are not allowed to download the files again without paying a second time.

If you do give iTunes gift cards despite my arguments against, always be certain to give receipts with the cards. I feel totally betrayed by Apple’s draconian policies of support on gift cards. If something doesn’t work with the gift card, you have to have the receipt. For the people who have never used a card, they all have these long codes on the back that you’ll have to type in by hand to iTunes. If iTunes fails to recognize the number, you are screwed. Here is an example code: (XXTGZ9DG6G4P6W43)

When the code is not recognized, the system will prompt you to fill out a lengthy form and attach scanned copies of your receipt. It was a gift! If someone gives it to you and they don’t know to include the receipt, you can’t very well go ask them for it, but if you don’t have it, you are out of options. Apple assumes you stole the card. Very un-American.

I wouldn’t have a huge problem with this except that it’s a simple matter to correct; Apple doesn’t want to correct the issue because they make a hefty profit from purchased cards that get refused. The card is scanned at checkout and could easily be logged in a database of legally purchased cards at this time with no extra work from anyone involved in the process. In fact, I would be willing to bet that this database already exists.

Without receipts, you own nothing but worthless plastic, regardless of how much your card’s face value displays. And you can’t ever mention it to the person who gave it to you. You just have to suffer in silence or write on your blog. At the end of this I have included my email thread proving this point.


Assume that you are successful in getting full cash value for your card in iTunes and you successfully purchase music. Great, now you have the files on your computer and you can play them on 5 computers, which sounds generous until you compare it with other similar services. MP3s from Amazon can be played on as many computers and devices as you like and they cost the same or less.

These digital locks on your property are called Digital Rights Management or DRM. DRM has been an unpopular decision for years and the internet is filled with rumor that DRM will be ignored in the future, but I’ve been using iTunes for years and the DRM is still limiting. The longer you use iTunes, the worse problem this becomes.

Ideally you’ll have these files for decades and play them on many stereos, portable devices, and in many vehicles over that time. Digital files should be simple to throw on a USB and pop in a player anywhere, but DRM will prevent these files from playing on anything that does not bear the Apple symbol, basically iPods and iTunes.

Better Alternatives

Most importantly there are cheaper and better alternatives available now. My favorite of these is a classic: vinyl. I know it’s hard to believe, but the newest, coolest gift is vinyl, and not in a retro way, but because it’s the best format for audiophiles. Modern vinyl records come with the digital downloads so you end up with the super cool, nice sounding vinyl and the DRM-free, high quality downloads for your digital media, which by the way, iTunes and iPods will play as easily as if they were Apple specific files.

Then there is the aforementioned Amazon MP3 option. These files are DRM-free and since iTunes has gone to $1.29 downloads on popular songs, Amazon is usually cheaper for new stuff. Plus Amazon gift cards can be used for just about anything, while iTunes gift cards can only be used on entertainment.

As I said, there are lots of better alternatives, but I’m going to wrap up my list of them with a third great option: used CDs. In most cities, music stores are getting killed. CDs don’t sell anymore; Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy have all reduced their shelf space of CDs (and increased their vinyl space). New CDs have almost no purpose now. Libraries and the artists themselves are about the only entities with uses for CDs anymore, unless it’s a used CD.

In the digital world, a used CD is equal to a new CD. All you are going to do is spin the disc once in your drive to upload it to iTunes and then you’ll stick the CD in the garage with the rest of them (there’s no point in having them on display anymore, use iTunes or iPods for sorting and you’ll find your albums faster with no dust or broken cases). These used CDs are much cheaper than the $9.99 iTunes price and they can be used many times. If your hard drive crashes, no problem, re-load it. Your car still has a CD player? Great, now you have a digital copy in the house and you can carry the CD in your car. What’s more, you provide life support to a local business.

Any way you look at it, iTunes Gift Cards are bad ideas. The selling point is supposed to be their plug-and-play simplicity, but you pay a high price for this simplicity and if something goes wrong, forget about getting your money back. Take the alternatives and don’t get lured in to the check out line convenience of the cards. Avoid iTunes Gift Cards at all costs!

Song of the Month

Fittingly, this month’s lyrics come to me from something I’m listening to through iTunes. This may be my first repeat. I just love Wayne Hancock. This is the title track off Thunderstorms and Neon Signs.

     Whenever I hear the wheels begin to whine
     It takes me back to another time
     There’s a big black cloud blowin in from the West
     Drivin all day lord I sure could use some rest
     There’s motel up ahead where I can unwind
     And I sure love thunderstorms and neon signs.

     I got a real nice room with a radio and TV
     This motel livin is the only life for me
     It looks like it'll be rainin for quite some time
     And mixed with the lightening is the glow from a neon sign



Communications with iTunes Store Support

First Form at Tech Support

Customer First Name : Caleb
Customer Last Name : Crow
email : redacted
Web Order # :
Support Subject : iTunes Cards and Codes
Sub Issue : Redemption questions
See additional info below
OS version: Mac OS X 10.6.x
Country: US
iTunes version: iTunes 10
iTunes account name: Caleb Crow
Specific request: My code is inactive or invalid
Activations code: XXTGZ9DG6G4P6W43
iTunes Gift Card Serial Number: 201215005790159115628927
Purchased from:
I can't get the Activation Code to work.

This level of tech support is woefully insufficient.

TrackID: 11539442

Initial Response

From: iTunes Store
To: redacted
Sent: Fri, September 24, 2010 4:17:11 PM
Subject: Re: iTunes Cards and Codes; Follow-up: 120697867

Dear Caleb,

Thank you for contacting iTunes Store Customer Support. My name is Dianne, and I will be happy to assist you with the issue you have reported.

I understand that you are unable to redeem your iTunes Store Gift Card because an error message states that the gift card has not been activated. I am sorry you are having this issue. I can certainly understand how frustrating this would be for you.

Please respond to this email and attach digital photos or scanned images of the sales receipt and both sides of the gift card. Make sure your digital images are legible before you attach them to your response.

You can also fax me photocopies of the gift card and the sales receipt. Please fax a copy of the front and back of your iTunes Store Gift Card as well as a copy of the sales receipt to this number:

(800) 903-4356 (toll-free)

On the fax cover sheet, write your name, email address, and the number 120697867

(this is your follow-up number from the subject line of this email).

Caleb, please note that if you do not have the sales receipt for the iTunes Store Gift Card, it may be possible to obtain a copy of the receipt from the store at which the card was purchased.
Thank you for choosing iTunes. Kind Regards.


iTunes Store Customer Support

Second email


The card was a gift. I don't have a receipt. The implication here is that I stole the card and the burden is put on me to prove my innocence. This seems very un-American. If the store can verify the sale, fine, but I don't know which store and I'm guessing you won't either.

This is really the process? It insures I will never purchase another gift card for anyone and I will stop asking for them as gifts.


Second Response

From: iTunes Store
To: redacted
Sent: Tue, September 28, 2010 12:11:32 PM
Subject: Re: iTunes Cards and Codes; Follow-up: 120697867

Dear Caleb,

Thank you for your reply. It is appreciated. I apologize if I have implied that you have stolen the gift card that is not activated. That was not my intention at all. We ask for the information to get this resolved for you in a timely manner.

To help me determine why the iTunes Gift Card isn't working, I'll need to see a photocopy of the card itself. I'll also need to see the receipt. If you do not have the receipt, perhaps you may contact the purchaser to help, or to find out where the card was purchased.

Please fax the following to the iTunes Store at 1-800-903-4356:

- A cover sheet addressed to iTunes Store Customer Support. On this sheet, write your name, email address, and the number 120697867 (your case ID).

- The sales receipt or gift receipt showing the purchase of the iTunes Gift Card.

- Legible photocopies of the front and back of the card.

If you're unable to send a fax, you may scan the sales receipt or gift receipt and the front and back of the card and attach the images to your response to this email.

Note that if you do not have the sales receipt or gift receipt for the iTunes Gift Card, it may be possible to obtain a replacement iTunes Gift Card from the store at which the card was purchased. If the store personnel are unable to replace the card itself, they may be able to reprint the receipt for you. Then you can fax or email the receipt and the card to the iTunes Store as described above. Unless you provide a receipt, the iTunes Store will be unable to assist.

Caleb, I apologize for the inconvenience that this has caused. I will look forward to your reply with the requested information to help get this resolved for you. Thank you for choosing iTunes. Kind Regards.


Third email

This is total crap. You can't do anything without a receipt? Aren't the majority of iTunes Gift Cards given as gifts? Who gives receipts with their gifts? I'm not about to go ask someone that gave me a gift if I can have the receipt. It's not worth the money. There is clearly a problem with your system.

I cannot wait to post this email thread on my blogs. This may have cost me $15, but I will make it my personal mission to directly prevent the purchase of 100 times that amount. No more gift cards, no more iTunes purchases for me or my network.

I'm not about to scan the card and send it in since you have already declared you can't help me without the receipt. I doubt this is true (I'm sure you could simply credit the account), and it's not really worth the effort for $15. I'm surprised and shocked that this is the policy and I know my readers will also be surprised.

I've gone Mac in a big way (multiple iPods, macbook pro, iPhone), but this case has given me pause. This level of service is pathetic. Please send me the "Applecare survey email".

"Thank you for choosing iTunes" seems insincere since clearly my continued business is worth less than $15.


Third response

Dear Caleb,

Thank you for your reply. I am sorry that I am not able to continue to assist you as you do not have your receipt for your Gift Card. It is Apples policy to have the proof of purchase in order to receive an appeasement of any kind; refund, new activation code, etc.

I have issued 5 song credits to your account "redacted." You can use the credits to buy songs of your choice from the iTunes Store.

When you sign in to the iTunes Store with this account, the song credits will appear by your account name in the upper-right corner of the iTunes window. The next time you buy an individual song from the iTunes Store, a song credit will be used to pay for the purchase. Please note that song credits are not able to be used for purchasing songs that are listed as Album Only.

If you don't see the credits, choose Sign Out from the Store pull-down menu at the top. Then choose Sign In from the Store menu, enter your account name and password, then click Sign In. Your song credits should now appear next to your account name.

Caleb, I apologize for the frustration that this has caused. You will receive a survey to complete when the email is closed. Kind Regards.



Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to assist you. You may receive an AppleCare survey email; any feedback you provide would be greatly appreciated.