Sunday, November 18, 2007


A big-box retail store sold S.E. of Middletown, Ohio, a new computer. The computer manufacturer provided a one-year warranty, but S.E. bought two extra years of coverage from the department store. When he bought the extra coverage, he was told that the store would cover all three years if any problem arose with his computer.

Only six weeks later, a problem arose.

After spending a long time on the telephone and going through all the steps the service department asked him to follow to check on his computer, it was determined that the likely culprit was a faulty power supply or mother board. He was told that the store would send him the parts and that someone would appear in about three weeks to install them.

S.E. wasn't happy with the idea of a three-week wait, so the next day he called the computer manufacturer directly. After spending another long time on the telephone, he was told that the problem definitely lay in the power supply. The manufacturer would ship a new one overnight, and S.E. could change it himself.

Sure enough, the equipment showed up the next day, complete with simple-to-follow instructions. S.E. made the fix, and the computer worked fine.

He might have left it at that, but instead he called back the department store to let them know that his computer had been fixed, so he wouldn't be needing the parts the store had sent -- which did, in fact, arrive shortly thereafter.

"I thought that was the right thing to do," S.E. writes.

After spending more time on the telephone, he was told by a technician from the retailer that, by changing the part himself, he had voided his extended warranty.

When he asked the retailer where in the warranty information he had received when he purchased the computer it said that he could not change a part without voiding the warranty, he was told that it was mentioned on the retailer's Web site.

"Sorry," the store representative said, "there's nothing we can do."

S.E. wants to know if the store should reinstate his extended warranty. He also wants to know if he's obligated to give back the new parts the retailer sent him. He figures that he can sell the parts for about the amount he spent on the extended warranty.

While the store may have legally covered itself by burying the conditions of its extended warranty on its Web site, what's legal is not necessarily what's ethical. Since the relevant information wasn't in any of the documentation S.E. received upon making his purchase, the right thing would be for the store to make good on the remaining term of the extended warranty.

Ideally S.E. would have informed the store of his intention before calling the manufacturer directly. Presumably he would then have been warned of the risk of voiding his warranty, and could have made an informed decision as to how to proceed. Under the existing circumstances, however, S.E. seems to have acted in good faith in his effort to get his computer repaired in a timely fashion.

Will the store reinstate the remainder of the warranty coverage? It sounds unlikely. If it won't, S.E. should offer to return the extra parts if the retailer will pay the shipping costs. If the store refuses to pay shipping, he is not obligated to return the parts at his own expense, and can simply hold onto them and use them to repair his computer if he ever needs to.

It may be that the store will tell him to keep the parts instead of paying for shipping. If so, they're his, and he can sell them with a clear conscience. Otherwise, his dissatisfaction with the terms of the warranty does not entitle him to sell the parts for his own benefit. They're two different issues.
Many consumers are dubious about the value of extended service contracts. If retailers want to erase those doubts, they would be well advised to make the conditions of those warranties absolutely clear at the time of purchase.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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