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It's Wild West in PC repairs

Computer repair outfits are largely unregulated. Two local women are working to fix that.

By SCOTT BARANCIK, Times Staff Writer
Published November 2, 2007


When Julia Royal, left, returned a laptop computer to Circuit City, somehow Julie Komenda, right, ended up with some of her computer files. Komenda had taken her desktop computer to the same Circuit City in Spring Hill for repairs.
photo
[Keri Wiginton | Times]
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When Julia Royal's brand new laptop computer began acting up last year, she returned to the store where she purchased it and got another.

A stranger called the following month. Did you return a computer to the Circuit City in Spring Hill, the man asked. Because I'm looking at photos of your teenage daughter.

Weeks later, a woman called. Julie Komenda, a Weeki Wachee artist who had brought her desktop computer for repair at the same store, found some of Royal's files on it afterward. Komenda's own data, however - letters from her two sons in the military, notes and chapters from a novel she was writing, her husband's medical records - had been permanently deleted.

You might think there would be some recourse. But when a Florida repair shop accidentally deletes, corrupts or shares your personal computer files, there's virtually nothing you can do about it, say attorneys, lawmakers, regulators and the police. Richmond, Va.-based Circuit City, which declined to comment on the incidents, gave Komenda a $100 gift card, blamed her for not backing up the computer beforehand, and later offered her a credit-protection plan. Royal got nothing.

"I trusted them because it's Circuit City," Royal says. "I thought, 'They're a big, reputable company, they'll do what they're supposed to do.' Not."

"They did something wrong," adds Komenda, 55, "and they don't feel that they have to make up for it."

Several factors give computer-repair shops an edge in customer disputes. One is the lack of regulation. Though Florida closely oversees certain professions - barbers, for example, must get 1,200 hours of schooling and pass written and practical exams, and dance studios must be licensed and bonded - there are no licensing or qualification requirements for computer-repair shops or their technicians.

In addition, PC fix-it units like Circuit City's Firedog or Best Buy's Geek Squad won't repair a computer without a signed release. Firedog's contractual language clarifies that "it is the customer's responsibility to back up all software and data that is stored on your computer's hard disk drive." It accepts no responsibility for "any loss, alteration or corruption" of personal files or software and it is not liable for damages beyond the fees charged for repair.

"The way these things are worded, you're basically giving them permission to blast (your computer) into 100 pieces and give you them back in a bag," Komenda says.

Royal, a 38-year-old mother of two who runs a sod business with her husband from their Spring Hill home, doesn't give up easily. She reported the man who inadvertently obtained her personal files to the Hernando County Sheriffs Office, claiming he tried to extort money from her and Circuit City both. She hired an attorney to research a possible lawsuit. She complained to Florida's Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, the Federal Trade Commission, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and a Hernando County television station that aired a segment on the tale earlier this year.

All pledged their moral support but said there was little or nothing they could do.

Royal and Komenda have had more luck with state Sen. Mike Fasano (R-New Port Richey). Chief legislative assistant Greg Giordano said the two women are helping craft legislation that would give computer-repair victims some legal recourse.

How did their repair jobs go wrong? Circuit City won't say, but Royal says the company failed to delete her personal files from the HP Pavilion she returned before reselling it as an "open box" model. Komenda said she believes a Firedog technician mistakenly copied files labeled "Julia" to the computer of customer "Julie."

All the two women know for certain is that they're going somewhere else for service next time.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

If your computer needs repairs

Given the array of personal data we store on our computers, having a stranger repair them can be worrisome. Advice from experts:

-Back up your files beforehand

The simplest way to preserve your files is to copy them onto an external hard drive. By the time your computer fails, making a copy might not be possible.If backing up files proves too difficult, consider paying the repair shop to make a back-up disk for you.

-Read the fine print before signing a work order

Most larger repair chains require you to sign a work order or other document before getting your computer repaired. If you're not comfortable releasing the shop from virtually all liability for negligence, take your computer elsewhere.

- Consider using a small, local repair shop

When it comes to buying new computers, big stores have an edge on price and selection. But small stores may have an edge on repairs. They are somewhat less likely to make you sign thoroughly one-sided releases.

[Last modified November 1, 2007, 23:23:04]


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