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A year after Watchdog, how's Sony's digital refund policy working out?

For one customer, not great.

Last year, the BBC's Watchdog programme investigated Sony's digital refund policy after it received a number of complaints from PlayStation owners who had struggled to get their money back following fraudulent purchases.

The BBC's Watchdog put PlayStation's digital refund policy under the spotlight.

At the time, Sony was heavily criticised for not refunding some customers who were charged for games they never bought. When these customers had their banks refund the money, Sony blocked their PlayStation Network accounts, preventing them from accessing online features and playing games they'd previously bought.

In response to Watchdog's programme, Sony promised to review its investigation process. But it said it would carry on suspending the accounts of customers who say they've been hacked while it investigates the claims.

So, nearly a year after Watchdog, has anything changed? According to our research - and one case study in particular - the answer is, not so much.

26-year-old PlayStation 4 owner Alex Aitken told Eurogamer of his particularly frustrating time with Sony customer support, which has denied him a refund despite his insistence he's been the victim of fraud.

Alex was charged £45 for a game he claims he didn't buy - and Sony has refused to refund him.

Alex says that on the evening of 4th April he received an email from PlayStation Network confirming a purchase of a Just Cause 3 avatar. Then came an email confirming a purchase of the game itself, which costs £44.99.

Surprised by the emails, Alex logged into his PSN account and noticed his avatar had been changed, his PSN wallet had been funded with £44.99 and Just Cause 3 had indeed been purchased.

He insists that during the time of the transaction his PS4 was switched off. Indeed, he was at home, where he lives alone, working on his computer.

"There is no way anyone had access directly to my PS4 console," he says. "At this time Playstations UK helpline was closed. So I deleted my saved bank details on my PSN account and changed my password."

The next day, Alex rang Sony's helpline. Sony told him it would refund the money back into his PSN wallet, but not refund the money back into his bank account.

"I asked what would happen if I told my bank to get the money back and he said that your PSN account would be blocked," Alex says.

Alex sent multiple emails to Sony customer support representatives, each time insisting he had not purchased the game. But, each time, Sony returned with the same response: you're responsible for the purchase, so we're not refunding you the money.

"Rather than exploring other issues that might have occurred they immediately jumped to the conclusion that someone accessed my PS4 directly and their security systems were not the problem," Alex says.

"The immediate conclusion they made was made with no investigation, or very little investigation as they came back so quick with a denial and at least proves significant issues with their customer service procedure. I can't imagine a high street shop acting in this way."

Alex now feels he's in a "lose lose" situation. He says he would like to ask his bank to refund the money, but doesn't want to lose access to his account.

"I would probably lose more money if they block my PSN account as I only paid my last PSN subscription in December, my back catalogue of downloaded games isn't huge but enough for it to be annoying," he says.

"But this proves the powerful position PlayStation are in when this happens to everyday gamers. They will know most gamers will do anything to not get their account blocked as they will lose access to all their games."

We contacted Sony to ask about Alex's case. The company said it had investigated the transaction and concluded his account had not been compromised. So, tough luck.

An email from Sony to Alex. Essentially, tough.

Here's the statement:

Alex understands it's a case of his word against Sony's. And it's clear Sony must protect itself from customers who claim they've been the victim of fraud when really they're trying their luck at a refund.

"I know that the purchase couldn't have been made on my PS4 console as it was switched off at the time and I was home alone," he said. "And PlayStation Support constantly suggesting that maybe I had friends over at the time was just a slap in the face and infuriating. It felt like they treated me as a child that just decided I didn't want a game I had purchased.

"Clearly PlayStation have security issues they don't want to acknowledge, a poorly run customer service and a very odd refund policy. A refund policy that seemingly only protects PlayStation and fails to protect its loyal customers."

Alex is not alone in being a PlayStation customer who has failed to secure a refund following what appears to be fraudulent activity. There are a number of similar reports on the PlayStation sub-Reddit and PlayStation's own website, and indeed Eurogamer has been contacted by other customers who have suffered a similar fate.

What's going on? Sony told Eurogamer that following the Watchdog programme, it underwent a "full review" and now grants a full refund to those it deems are a victim of fraud. Previously, it would only issue a full refund if content was found to be "defective".

Here's the statement:

The key here is that Sony is judge, jury and executioner in these cases. It investigates, and, if it decides an account has been compromised, it will issue a refund. If its decision goes against you, however, you won't get your money back. It's very difficult to prove you've been the victim of fraud, after all.

Then there's the ongoing issue of the security of the PlayStation Network. Sony said it has beefed up its security, but called on users to do their best to protect their personal details online. There's more on this on the PlayStation website.

So there you have it: if your PSN account is hacked and you're left out of pocket, ask Sony for help, then cross your fingers it finds in your favour.