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When a computer goes kaput

Computer owners discover it is not easy to get their PC repaired or to find a good technician.

By DAVE GUSSOW Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 1999

Alex Kallergis isn't alone in his displeasure. [Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Alex Kallergis bought a computer with a Pentium processor, a 17-inch monitor and a five-year warranty. Later, he added a lawyer.

The computer has been back to the CompUSA store in Clearwater for repairs at least 10 times since it was purchased in June 1997, Kallergis and his lawyer say. And, they add, it still doesn't work.

CompUSA has a lawyer, too, and he says the chain has gone above and beyond to fix the computer and satisfy Kallergis.

Kallergis is far from alone as a consumer who says he got stuck with a lemon of a computer:

* Windows Magazine readers reported last fall that 13 percent of systems had some problem or didn't work right out of the box.

* Not one PCmaker ranked as outstanding in PC World (www.pcworld.com) magazine's annual survey of readers on service and reliability last fall. In previous years, one or two companies had earned top spots in such surveys.

* The Florida Division of Consumer Services logged 1,237 computer- and software-related complaints in 1997 and 1998, from PC-repair disputes to refund disagreements to bait-and-switch accusations.

While Kallergis of New Port Richey tried to have his computer fixed while it was still under warranty at a national chain, others face repairs after the warranty has expired, leaving many guessing where to take a problem PC. That can have costly consequences.

Charlotte Astalos of Palm Harbor simply picked a shop out of the phone book when she wanted to upgrade her computer. She called, they sounded knowledgeable, and she got an estimate, though not in writing.

She was left holding the case -- that is all she says was left of her computer when the now-defunct company finished.

"I'm usually not fooled, but in this case I was," said Mrs. Astalos, a retiree who along with her husband got a small claims court judgment against the company, Florida Computer Resources. The company's records at the secretary of state's office are listed as inactive. Executives of the company could not be reached for comment.

Mrs. Astalos is out $700 and the computer, which disappeared after she took it back for repairs caused by the upgrade.

Last spring, PC World did a cover story with the headline "PC Repair Ripoff," after an undercover test involving four national chains: CompUSA, Computer City, Best Buy and Radio Shack. The magazine created problems with the computers (not purchased at the stores) and took them in for repairs. It chose 20 stores, mainly in California, Massachusetts, Colorado and Pennsylvania, and reported that 30 of 55 problems were misdiagnosed.

"None of the major national chains at the time did what we thought was an acceptable job of servicing PCs purchased at other places," said Bill Snyder, the magazine's executive news editor who worked on the PC repair project. "If you have a machine that needs repair, none of these guys offer a good shot at being satisfied."

Three of the four chains did not challenge the magazine's findings and talked about the priority they place on getting repairs right; Best Buy declined to comment to the magazine. A similar test on NBC's Dateline last year showed four of 11 computers not being repaired properly. CompUSA fared better in that test than in the magazine's, fixing all three computers brought to it.

One problem at some repair shops is that technicians start swapping parts without first testing the machine. That doesn't work, said Jeff Moss, vice president of marketing for TriniTech (www.pcanalyzer.com), a Largo company that, among other things, makes diagnostic hardware and software for technicians.

Moss said consumers should be wary of technicians who tout their experience, boasting that "our guys know what they're doing." Ask them, he said, what diagnostic tools they use.

Not all see the situation as bleak. Roger Kay, senior analyst at market research firm International Data Corp., thinks PC manufacturers and retailers have done a good job improving service and reliability, including adding more online help.

Sometimes, he said, the problem can lie with the consumer. For example, it is not the fault of the computer -- or its maker -- if a consumer buys a low-end machine not capable of handling what the consumer wants. Backing up that point, the Windows Magazine survey showed more new users reported problems than did experienced users.

Kay also questions the validity of some reader surveys. "When it works, they don't say anything," Kay said. "They complain when they don't.

"Hardware reliability has been pretty good for the last bunch of years. It's not that users don't have problems, but they have problems for a variety of reasons, most of which isn't related to the function of the computer itself."

Kallergis falls into the first-time owner category. He bought the Packard Bell computer (a brand that consistently ranks at the bottom of reader surveys) for $3,125 and spent $429.97 for CompUSA's five-year warranty.

He said the problems started immediately, when the computer wouldn't shut off. Initial problems were resolved by Packard Bell phone support. Then hardware started failing, particularly the floppy disk drive and CD-ROM, problems he took to CompUSA.

Last spring, Kallergis smelled something burning and said he could see smoke coming out of the computer, apparently from a faulty power supply. That is when he first asked for a new computer, but was told that wasn't possible.

He said CompUSA sometimes would keep the computer for weeks or even months at a time. He estimates that he has had the computer only six of the 19 months he has owned it. Sometimes, he said, CompUSA returned the "repaired" computer broken.

"You take it in, you get it fixed, and it works great," said Kallergis, a mechanic. "An hour later it starts doing the same exact thing it did before."

That led him to attorney Walter Blenner in Palm Harbor, who calls this an unusual case. Filing a lawsuit could cost more ($2,500-$5,000, including filing fees and attorney costs) than Kallergis spent on the computer, and Blenner initially didn't think that would be necessary.

He and CompUSA attorney Mark Walker have exchanged letters since August, with Blenner seeking a refund or some kind of settlement and Walker saying the computer has been fixed. It remains a standoff.

"CompUSA has bent over backward in an attempt to accommodate the Kallergises and Mr. Blenner," Walker said, "and we are at a loss as to what more can be done to satisfy them."

Walker declined to talk in detail about the situation but said the chain has pictures that show none of the fire or smoke damage claimed by Kallergis and Blenner.

In the meantime, Kallergis has bought a computer for his wife and daughter -- a Compaq from a different store. Blenner has contacted the insurer that backs CompUSA's service plan, but has not yet received a response.

"I really thought they would step up to the plate and do the right thing," Blenner said of CompUSA. "I was wrong."


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