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Investigative Report

How to Avoid Computer-Repair Ripoffs

There are lots of reasons why too many consumers are paying for unnecessary computer repairs. There’s little independent regulation to guarantee a technician’s competency. Repair experts working at some consumer electronics retailers could be motivated by profit as much as principle. And consumers have limited recourse against repair shops that create new problems for them and their computer.

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When Julie Royal bought a new computer 2 years ago, she had no idea it would create such a long and confusing technological headache. Today, the Floridian is still trying to figure out why data from that computer—including important business documents and family photos—wound up on computers owned by other people. Who’s to blame? Well, Royal is still pointing a finger at, among others, the national consumer electronics retail chain that created her mess.

Unfortunately, Royal’s frustration is all too common at a time when we rely on repair and installation technicians to diagnose our notebook computers, revive our music players or hook up our flat-screen televisions. At a time when millions of homes have  computers, consumers are at the mercy of consumer electronics repair techs in much the same way that they are with auto mechanics (and we all know how vulnerable we might feel at the auto-repair shop). So, after an extensive investigation, we’ve concluded that it’s really hard for consumers to figure out whether the people who fix or install consumer electronics are qualified to do the work and whether their advice is best for your ailing device (or for your pocketbook).

TECH TROUBLES. Based on our reporting and research—which includes interviews of 28 people with ties to the tech-installation-and-repair industry—you risk wasting money whether you rely on national retail chains, such as Best Buy-owned Geek Squad and Circuit City’s Firedog, or whether you search for a small independent repair shop. In fact, we think it’s quite reasonable for consumers to wonder whether some techs are simply pushing unnecessary repair services, or hardware and software upgrades that increase sales and profits at the customer’s expense.

The problem is the next time a tech somberly tells you the motherboard on your computer is fried and you’ll need a new machine, there’s very little you can do to be certain that the tech knows what he/she is talking about. Our investigation found widespread customer complaints of shoddy service. We discovered a stream of outraged customers reporting flawed repairs, off-target diagnoses, missing or lost computers that had been dropped off for servicing, and even peeping techs who gawked at private documents and images stored on hard drives.

We’re not surprised by any of this, given that computer techs at many stores tend to be underpaid and inexperienced—often they are college students looking to make a few extra bucks or relative novices who just jumped into the repair industry, experts tell us.

Beware of Repair

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To be fair, even the most fervent critics acknowledge that there are plenty of skilled techs out there who are qualified to repair or install consumer electronics and computers and who also are dedicated to providing service at a reasonable price. But as our investigation shows, it’s much too hard for consumers to identify the good from the bad. There is very little in the way of screening, testing or government regulation that reduces the chance that you’ll get ripped off.

For instance, when we planted a very minor problem on identical notebook computers, then took them to nine places for repairs, only four stores correctly diagnosed the problem. (See “Beware of Repair”). Only one of those stores fixed it as quickly (15 minutes) and affordably (free) as a consumer should expect for such a simple problem. (We disabled the network settings.) In many cases, it felt as if these techs were simply throwing darts—they might miss the problem, but they’ll always hit your wallet.

GEEK SPEAK. One inherent problem is that the best-known repair services are now owned by national consumer electronics retailers who specialize in selling you the very products you need fixed. To those stores, it’s all about customer convenience. To us, it creates a potential conflict of interest. Today, Geek Squad has 972 locations and 17,000 employees—and, in the surest sign that computer service has become big business, Geek Squad is now owned by the ubiquitous electronics retailer Best Buy. Not to be outdone, Circuit City also has its own computer-repair operation, known as Firedog.

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