Apple's policy of replacing broken iPhones is playing into the hands of criminals who steal the handsets, damage them and take them to an Apple Store to be replaced, it has been claimed.

In an op-ed piece for the Reuters news agency, US-based consumer rights journalist Mitch Lipka said that Apple's well-intentioned customer service plan, where the owner of a broken handset doesn't have to be present in order for Apple to take it in for repairs, was being abused.

Lipka uses the example of a boss with a broken handset sending his or her assistant to the Apple Store to get their iPhone repaired, or someone who had bought it second-hand. But, he warns, as Apple's policy means that the warranty is tied to the iPhone itself and not the customer, "the ease of trading in stolen iPhones and selling their replacements makes them nearly as tempting as grabbing cash".

Criminals abusing the "honour system" that Apple bases its policy on can cause real problems for the legitimate owner, Lipka says. He cites the example of a student who had her phone snatched in a Boston railway station only to receive, a few days later, an automated email telling her that her damaged phone was repaired at an Apple Store.

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When she tried to get the iPhone back, though, the store wouldn't hand it over as she wasn't the person who brought it in. Happily, she found her network provider, Verizon, much more helpful when she called the company to have the handset disabled.

The problem of iPhone thefts is common from coast to coast in the US, Lipka says, with the New York Police Department reporting that 70 percent of all handsets stolen between January and October 2011 were iPhones, with mobile phone theft accounting for around half of the 16,000 robberies reported in the district in that period.