Starting around 8:30 PM ET on Monday, January 22nd, our system encountered an issue where users were unable to sign in to the PBS website, preventing them from logging in on the site and the PBS app on streaming devices. Since then, we've seen a lot of confusion and questions about this incident and next steps, so our support team wanted to share some more details about this issue with you below.
Early Monday morning, we made an update to one of our systems, and when our site and app traffic increased that night, our updated system began to encounter issues with the demand. This caused logins to fail on the PBS site.
When we became aware of the issue, we posted a status update on our Status page, status.pbs.org. When we post an update here, all subscribers receive an email notification that there's an ongoing incident. If you are not already subscribed to this page, please click the Subscribe to Updates button at the top to submit your email address for future notifications.
We also posted a banner at the top of help.pbs.org alerting users to the login issues being investigated.
Once the issue was identified, our engineers did a rollback, and the issue was resolved around 10 PM ET.
Throughout yesterday, we also became aware from users and stations that many users were signed out of the PBS app on their OTT device (Roku, Apple TV, and others) and needed to activate to sign back in. We know it wasn't all users, but from the number of reports we've seen and heard of from stations, a large userbase was affected.
Needing to activate the app is normal for these devices, and is not a red flag on its own. To activate, users are given a code on the app screen and need to enter that code at pbs.org/activate (using another device, like a computer or mobile phone), then sign in with their account.
There is also a QR code on the app activation screen. The QR code immediately opens a browser tab on the user's phone for pbs.org/activate. The QR code is not required to activate, and users can instead manually enter pbs.org/activate in their browser and skip the QR code entirely.
When using the QR code, users can use their phone's native camera app, and do not need to download any additional apps to scan QR codes. Users who use third-party apps to scan the QR code may encounter a scam service, with more details below.
There is no way around this app activation for affected users - we cannot automatically sign someone back into the OTT app if they were signed out of the app. Anyone being asked to activate the app must go through pbs.org/activate to sign back in.
With users being asked to reactivate the PBS app, we've also heard from users and stations that some users are encountering scam sites, apps, or phone numbers. These are third-party products unaffiliated with PBS that pose as a support team helping users activate an app on their streaming device, and users are asked to call a number or submit their financial information to do so.
We believe that users are primarily encountering these scams in two ways:
- They try to go to pbs.org/activate on their computer/phone, but instead of going directly to the site, they mistype the URL or do a general web search, and find themselves on a non-PBS site.
- They download a third-party app to scan QR codes, and when they scan the QR code on our app, their third-party app redirects them to a scam site or service.
QR codes can only ever direct to a single site, but when a third-party app is introduced, that app can direct the user to another site of the app's choice. So to the user, they are scanning the QR code on the PBS app and it appears the PBS app is directing them to the scam site, but in reality it's whatever third-party scanner they're using that's interfering.
Warning signs that a user has been victim to a scam include:
- The user was asked to enter their credit card or pay a fee to activate the app or use the "support service"
- The user was asked to download an app on their device; these apps typically ask the user to enter personal information or have access to their device once installed
- The user was given a phone number that is not an official PBS phone number, and spoke with someone who never claimed to be with PBS
- The user was directed to a site that includes no mention of PBS
If you receive any user reports of these scams, please ask the user for any additional information they can provide:
- The URL of a website they visited (this is the most helpful)
- The name of the scanner app they downloaded and used to scan the QR code, if any
- The phone number they dialed (this is less helpful on its own)
We will send these details to our legal department for review. In the past, we have been able to take action again sites and services posing as PBS - ones where they use our name, logos, or other branding. However, it becomes harder when these sites/services don't represent themselves as PBS in any way, and instead present themselves to users as a generic "activation support service".
If a user ever submits and personal or financial information to these services, please ask them to contact their banking institution immediately. While we can help them with activating the PBS app when the user is ready, it's important that they secure their information first before returning to PBS for help.
Overall, we understand this issue has caused a lot of confusion and frustration, not just on Monday night when the incident first happened, but also in the following days. Our support team is handling a record number of calls and emails on top of the normal volume we see, and that doesn't include the volume your membership teams are also seeing. However, users should be able to log in and activate with no issues now, outside of the "normal" hurdles that our users face with digital products.