Apple added Activation Lock several years ago to its iPhones as a theft deterrent, partly at the request of users and partly because law enforcement insisted it would reduce the incentive for grab-and-run theft. The idea was that even if an iPhone were stolen and wiped, the device would refuse to allow a new installation without the Apple ID and password for the account that originally registered it being available to unlock it.
Activation Lock is turned on by enabling Find My in Settings > account name > iCloud. Disabling Find My requires the same Apple ID login that turned it on. It’s now also available on an iPad, iPod touch, Apple Watch, and any Mac with the T2 security chip that enables Touch ID and other features. On a Mac, use the iCloud preference pane in macoS 10.14 Mojave and earlier and the Apple ID preference pane starting in 10.15 Catalina.
But there’s a problem and it comes up frequently, including in our mailbag: if the original person who enabled Find My isn’t available for whatever reason, the phone either can’t be erased, can’t be used effectively, or becomes a brick when wiped. (Some companies claim to have software that bypasses Activation Lock, and some criminal syndicates may be able to.)
That can be because you bought a phone from someone who didn’t disable Find My, a former employee’s company device used that person’s Apple ID account (and potentially they left on bad terms or are no longer reachable), the owner dies or develops cognitive impairment, or even you—well, let’s say someone—can’t remember your Apple ID password and can’t use recovery techniques to reset it, particularly with an older device and account. Apple provides a rundown on how to ensure you don’t purchase a device that’s locked.
While some dubious third parties claim they can break Activation Lock without, it involves dubious or outright illegal methods, although both criminals and people with legitimate ownership may try to employ those techniques.
Only three Apple-connected options are sure to work:
Have the Apple ID account holder enter their password directly onto the device.
If they’re unavailable or it’s easier, the account holder can log into Find My at iCloud.com or one of their linked devices and remove the affected device. That disables Activation Lock as well.
Failing all that, the original owner can contact an Apple Store, Apple Support, or an Apple-authorized third-party service centers and reseller and provide a receipt showing their name, the device, date of purchase, and device serial number.
Apple doesn’t advertise this last option, and it only works for the original purchaser. I’ve heard from people who have lost family members, like a parent or grandparent, and been unable to unlock a device even with a death certificate and legal proof they had the right and the original receipt, because they weren’t the original owner.
In the case of an ex-employee where you’re responsible for trying to unlock a company-owned device, and you can’t reach or don’t want to get in touch with the former worker, a corporate receipt may work. Better yet, ensure that all devices that are returned are unlocked by an employee when they leave, are laid off, or are fired. Since they have to turn in the gear, add one item to the checklist.
This Mac 911 article is in response to a question submitted by Macworld reader Juliann.
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