[Updated on Jan. 13 with response from Redbox]
There's a disc bandit on the loose, at least in New Braunfels.
It started on Saturday at a Walgreens, where two Redbox kiosks sit side-by-side. It's been years since I've rented a movie on disc and even longer since I've rented any video games, but out of curiosity, I checked to see if they had games available for the new Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles.
To my surprise, there were games available for both. I have a PS4 and have only played two retail games on it. I jumped at the chance to rent "Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag" for a measly $2, much less than I'd pay for even a used copy at my nearest game trade emporium.
That night, long after the kids went to bed, I settled in for a night of adventure on the high seas. I opened the disc case and found... a piece of paper. It was a crudely cut color printout of the "Assassin's Creed IV" game disc, including the QR codes at the center of the disc that identify it in the Redbox kiosks.
There was nothing on Redbox's website about what to do if you got a paper disc, just information on discs being unplayable. After failing to connect with online chat, I called in and spoke to a very friendly representative who offered me two free promo codes (in addition to the one you get for being a new Redbox member).
The next day, I went to the same kiosk to return the paper disc and its case, which had been marked as fraudulent and was set to be taken out of circulation. The kiosk next to it said it had a copy of the same game, so I used one of the promo codes to get it. Guess what? Another paper copy of "AC IV."
I drove to a CVS down the street which also had a pair of Redbox kiosks. I called customer service again and let them know about the second stolen disc. While I kept the rep on the phone, I returned the second disc and tried again. The third disc I got back of "AC IV": more paper.
I told the rep I was going to try a different game. This time it was "NBA2K14" that came back as a printed copy.
By this time, I was ready to give up on renting games entirely, as using the multiple promo codes that were accumulating was proving to be a waste of time anyway. It made me sad. Somebody took the time to steal all these game discs and who knew how many more bad copies were sitting in those Redbox kiosks waiting for some unsuspecting gamer to come across them?
The rep I spoke to on the phone struggled to mark all the discs as fraudulent, causing me to wait a while before I could return each of them. She did a little detective work and determined (big surprise) that the same person was apparently responsible for renting and swapping all of these games.
I asked if they'd be reported to law enforcement or charged for the price of the games (about $60 for each copy). She told me no; Redbox only shuts down the account and blocks the credit card so they can't rent additional games or movies.
Of course, by that point this person has already made off with at least $240 worth of games. "They made out pretty well," I told her. She agreed.
It turns out this scam is not novel or new. It's been written up by Consumerist, the Chicago Sun Times and others. One man apparently made off with about $31,000 worth of games and movies before getting caught by simply moving QR stickers from discs to the Redbox cases they came in.
A Twitter search reveals even more who have had the issue, though a more common complaint is discs that are unplayable because they're scratched up. Could Redbox install some hardware to scan the disc itself to make sure it's real rather than just scanning the QR code at the center of each disc? I imagine that would be pretty expensive to do for every box in the country.
As for me? I spent more than an hour dealing with bad discs via customer support and still haven't played "Black Flag." I think I'm done with Redbox for now, at least at those kiosk locations. Meanwhile, I imagine the New Braunfels Redbox PlayStation 4 game bandit, who need only switch to another credit card to continue plundering, is still at large.
Redbox did not respond to a media request for more information on how common this is and what their official policy is for dealing with swapped-out discs.
[Edited to add on Jan. 13] A Redbox representative responded to our media request with the following information:
"Redbox is pleased with our track record as an extremely popular and consumer-friendly offering, having rented more than 3 billion discs in a little over 10 years.
"The frequency of fraud is very low, especially given the number of discs we rent on a monthly basis. For example, we rented about 66 million discs per month on average in Q3 2013.
"We are constantly looking at ways to prevent and deter fraud, including analyzing rental patterns and working with authorities to apprehend individuals responsible.
"Customer service is a top priority at Redbox. If a customer receives a fraudulent disc, we ask that they immediately call 1.866.REDBOX3."