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Watchdog: Know what you buy before you buy it

March 30, 2010 at 6:03 p.m.
Updated March 30, 2010 at 10:31 p.m.


Have a question for 'Watchdog'?

To submit questions, e-mail watchdog@vicad.com, post them to the "Watchdog" blog or call Advocate Public Service Editor Gabe Semenza at 361-580-6519. No topic is off-limits.

Anne Clem bought a $400 laptop and an $80 warranty she thought covered accidental damage, she said.

The 50-year-old Victoria mother bought the laptop in June for her college-aged daughter. When the student in February dropped a book on the laptop's monitor - and broke the screen - Clem returned the device to Best Buy, thankful she bought the warranty.

A few weeks later, though, Best Buy told Clem she must pay $800 to repair the damaged monitor and that her warranty fails to cover accidental damage.

The warranty Clem bought, Best Buy says, was an extended manufacturer's warranty and not the more expensive accidental damage variety.

Clem is angry because she said she specifically asked Best Buy's salespeople for the warranty that covers accidental damage. When she left the store last year, she thought she was covered.

"They won't admit or even apologize for the person at the counter who sold us the wrong coverage," Clem said. "They refunded the amount we spent on the so-called warranty, but that's it."

CONSUMER RECOURSE?

Clem filed a Better Business Bureau complaint. The bureau closed the case after finding acceptable the Best Buy warranty refund, documents provided by Clem show.

Mario Chavana, a Best Buy manager, said Clem's receipt clearly shows she bought the less expensive warranty. The accidental variety costs about twice as much, he noted.

"We preach to our employees to sell the accidental first," Chavana said. "It costs a lot more. A lot of customers don't want to buy the accidental warranty because it is more expensive."

Whether the salespeople told Clem she bought the accidental warranty remains tough to prove. Dale Hollis offers advice to help you avoid similar situations.

Hollis, a San Antonio-based consumer protection analyst, said you should take careful note anytime you buy a product or warranty. Take the time to read the fine print, he said.

"Know what you're buying before you buy it. Choose reputable brands and first survey the information about that brand," Hollis said.

If you feel you were misled during a transaction, Hollis said, you don't have to throw in the towel.

Citing the Deceptive Trade Practices Act, he said that if a salesperson creates confusion about a product or service you buy, you have legal recourse in Texas.

To seek recourse, Hollis suggests you send the company a notice and give it 30 days to refund or rebate your money. Let the company know it induced confusion about the product or service.

Include this information in your notice:

Describe the scenario. Explain what happened and why you feel a refund or replacement is in order.

Specify the amount of damage incurred - $800 in Clem's case.

Be clear that if the matter remains unresolved to your satisfaction, you plan to file your complaint in court. If your complaint goes to court, note that you also request a reasonable attorney's fee.

"The notice doesn't have to be anything sophisticated," Hollis said. "Just write 'Notice of dispute' on top of the page."

If the company fails to reply, document that, too, and take your complaint to small claims court.

As for Clem, I asked her if she accepts blame for buying the wrong warranty.

"Ultimately there is shared responsibility, but I asked for a specific item and they told me that's what I was getting," she said. "The store has a certain responsibility to know its products and to sell the correct products. I will agree the buyer has to be educated, but laptop warranties are not my specialty. It's their specialty and that's why I went to them."

SCAM WATCH

Sgt. Felix Appelt, a crime prevention specialist with the Victoria Police Department, paints this scene:

It's summertime and you decide to enjoy a vacation. You check in to your hotel. To pay for your room and any associated charges, you give the front desk clerk your credit card.

You stroll to your room and settle in.

Someone from outside the hotel calls the front desk and asks for the clerk to connect him with a room number - your room, in this scenario. The phone rings and you answer.

"This is the front desk," the imposter says. "When checking in, we came across a problem with your charge card information. Please re-read me your credit card number and verify the last three digits numbers on the reverse side of your charge card."

Not thinking - and because the call seems to originate at the front desk - you share the information. By doing so, you've just fallen victim to a popular summertime scam.

"If you ever encounter this problem on your vacation, tell the caller that you will be down at the front desk to clear up any problems," Appelt, the Victoria sergeant, said. "Then, go to the front desk and ask if there was a problem.

If there was none, inform the manager of the hotel that someone called to scam you of your credit card information."

Gabe Semenza is the Public Service Editor for the Advocate.

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