Last week, my mother sent my daughter a gift – a “Mazin Hamster” from Ganz. It comes with a “feature code” that supposedly confers access to a special area of the Webkinz online world. No link; you’ll see why soon enough. The problem is that the hamster’s feature code by itself doesn’t give you access to the Webkinz site. For that, you need the “secret code” associated with a regular Webkinz animal first; then you can use the hamster’s code to get into the special area. Not having such a secret code, I set about procuring one. I went to eBay, found an auction for a cute little gecko with a sealed code attached, and quickly won the auction for far less than it would cost to buy a similar animal in a brick-and-mortar store. So far, so good.

When the gecko arrived, we tried to use its secret code to register on the website. I’m sure everyone can guess what happened next; we were informed that the code had already been used and thus was no longer valid. So here I am, in clear physical possession of both the toy itself and the associated card/ticket with a unique code printed on it, having provably paid for both, but as far as Ganz is concerned I do not own that code. Sometimes possession isn’t nine tenths of the law, after all. The first thing I did was contact the seller, who I will not name because I’m not really sure he did anything wrong. I was polite. I explained the situation, warned him that some of the “sealed” codes on toys he’s selling might not have been sealed in any useful sense after all, and sought his advice. As expected, he swore that the code had been sealed when he got the toy and when he sent it to me. He offered to send me a new code if he got one, but I have to say if I did get a code I could never shake the suspicion that it had come from some other kid’s toy. Having been disappointed twice, Amy was in tears by this point. I don’t much like the idea of merely causing yet another little boy or girl to cry, and I told the seller that.

My next step was to contact Ganz. The phone representative confirmed that the code had already been used, adding that it had been as far back as 2008 and even giving me the first name of who they considered the owner. The toy does appear brand new, in case you were wondering. I’ve seen plenty of these toys before. We even have one (sans code) already, and I can assure you that they don’t stay new-looking long after they get into the hands of a kid who would be interested in registering on the site. Phone Gal also informed me that they do not support sales via Amazon or eBay, only from physical stores or their own eStore. First I’d heard about that. I verified that physical possession of the object didn’t count, and then bade Phone Gal good day.

OK, so I got screwed, but that’s not what this is about. What’s the real problem here? The eBay seller had tried tell me that the codes could be guessed, but I’m skeptical. Each code has to be associated with a particular type of animal. There are enough digits in the code, and enough hundreds of animal types, that making five guesses per day on the Webkinz sites isn’t really going to be very rewarding. No, the first real problem is that the physical security on the authentic codes is very weak. It’s just a simple slip of paper in a plastic envelope tied shut with a little blue ribbon. There’s no plastic thing that you have to break to get at the code, no scratch area, not even a tamper-evident foil seal on the envelope. It would be trivial to buy the toy, use the code, put the code slip back in the envelope, and re-sell it. The physical security is so poor that it would even be possible to do all of this in the store without purchasing anything, and I suspect that’s where most illicitly used codes come from. I was briefly tempted to do exactly that myself, and I’m pretty sure that’s what the eBay seller intended to do, but I try to be a better person than that.

That’s not really the biggest problem here, though. The biggest problem is Ganz’s attitude. They must be aware of how easy it is to steal or misuse codes, and of how often it actually happens. They could secure the codes better, but that might add a couple of pennies to the price. Sadly, I know enough about our collective “race to the bottom” to understand and almost accept that they couldn’t be expected to do that. Alternatively, they could accept proof of physical possession as proof of virtual possession. That would cost them nothing, and would be the fair thing to do according to every moral standard I can think of. Why don’t they? I think it’s because they don’t want to support any kind of re-sale at all. They want to sell you a brand new toy, at full price, even if the toy you already have is only “not new” by virtue of illicit use that they have practically encouraged. Their position is even worse than the RIAA or MPAA, who have at least had to concede that physical transfer of a CD or DVD transfers rights as well. A stolen code is not a lost sale to them; it’s two sales. Doing the right thing would hurt their business. The status quo suits them just fine, and they don’t care how many children’s tears are shed because of it.

No, Ganz, I will not be buying anything from you. Ever. I will endure Amy’s tears if I have to. I will use this as an opportunity to teach her about how companies sometimes do things that are wrong, about the concept of socially responsible purchase decisions, and about boycotts. Then I’ll substitute some other equivalent gift, perhaps a game or membership on some other site, because it’s not her fault (or my mother’s) that you’re evil. I’m so annoyed that I might even do more than that. You’ve made an enemy.