The problem is not so much the "water damage" statements by verizon. Steam or a hot and humid day can affect the cell phone and although never near water, nor ever been dropped in water could cause the water sensors to show damage.
However in many cases you and I would not have known the water sensor had changed color.
The empty box, the never received back, the questionable physical damage could have occurred after the acceptance at the return shippers location. The problem here is verizon will charge the customers account for these things and more.
However the loss, damaged, misdirection etc. Done to the return after its scanned is not the responsibility of the customers. Since its Verizon's return to vendor label its between verizon and the carrier. But the customers are charged for the device when its not their fault or responsibility. You see this is a big thing with verizon. And probably other carriers.
Yes there could be scammers in that equation so the problem is something to be looked at case by case. But if a customer has a receipt for the return, or even for the acceptance of the device the matter should be only between verizon and the return shipper. Not with the customer and the return shipper. Or verizon should have the customers return the devices under their own money and reimburse the customers account after its received back.
I live in Hawaii. Do you know how hard it is to trip those sensors? If it was that easy just taking a hot shower would trip those sensors just by having it in the bathroom when you do. Hawaii is notorious for corrosion near the beaches, but not once have I seen sensored tripped without actually submerging. I have a lot of times corrosion without tripped sensors.
Even if it ends in the hands of a person. Any lost and damage the sender is liable. The sender has to file the claim last I remember. I'll verify it when my packages arrive from Amazon today. UPS FAQ website confirms that the sender is liable at least.
There are different modes of returns. Verizon uses a Return to Vendor program label. I used them while working for the government. In essence I send you a return label on my account. I then have control of the package. Verizon could also issue a pick up call tag where I send the shipping company to your home and business to get the package, place a label on addressed to me, hand you a receipt for the pick up and provide a tracking number. The person I have picked up the package from is no longer responsible for lost, damaged packages.
The return to vendor program is the same except I give you a label addressed back to me for the return. No customer using these two methods can file a claim for loss or damage or theft. Only the shipper which is Verizon can start a claim or trace. The package was sent under their account.
Now if you and I were to go to Fedex or UPS or even the US Postal Service and pack the box, address the label to verizon and pay for the package out of your own pocket, then the claim is between you and the shipper for non delivery and insurance payment. Verizon then can rightfully invoice you for the device until you get your insurance check which either pays them or reimburse you.
That is how it works. Call Fedex or UPS and ask about the Return to Vendor program and the call tag process.