Confessions of a computer repairman
The original trader offered her £40 for the “scrappage value” on the laptop and asked whether she would like to buy a new model. Fortunately, the woman smelt a rat and sought a second opinion.
“She thought it was dodgy and she was right,” said Sharples. “It turned out to be a problem with the power supply unit that we fixed for about a fiver, but the computer was nearly new, worth £400-500, so he could have cleaned up.”
The memory game
We’ve spoken to repair shops that have been contacted by disgruntled customers from other shops who, clutching a sheaf of receipts for work undertaken and hardware installed, aren’t happy that the expected performance boost hasn’t materialised or has lasted only a short time.
“The trick,” one repair shop owner told us, “is to give the computer a good tune-up to clear any adware or malware that might be slowing down the machine; clean out the cache; perform a spring clean – anything that makes the machine much faster.
No-one’s going to notice if there’s 3GB or 2GB of RAM in there if it works faster when it comes back from repair, and they’ll probably never look
“There’s no real need to actually install the strips of RAM that the client has paid for, because they probably won’t know where to look for it. No-one’s going to notice if there’s 3GB or 2GB of RAM in there if it works faster when it comes back from repair, and they’ll probably never look.”
The hostage situation
Although the repairmen we spoke to stressed the importance of setting an upfront price with customers, they also explained that rogue outfits are more than happy to zealously undertake costly repair work, even if the final price outweighs the value of the computer.
The result, when the customer goes back to collect the computer, is chronic “bill shock”. Since the work has been done as per agreement, the cowboys claim they can withhold the machine until payment has been made.
“We hear about it a lot, mostly with motherboards or laptop screens that are installed at an inflated price – perhaps up to £180 instead of about £100,” said Finlay. “As the work has been done, the customer effectively has to pay for it, even if it costs more than the laptop is worth. People should agree a price upfront and get in touch if there are any high charges, but not everyone does.”
The practice isn’t always so expensive, but can still feel like a violation to consumers who are bullied into paying something for nothing.
“A colleague had a faulty laptop and took it to his local independent PC shop,” PC Pro reader Ged told us. “It offered to diagnose it for £20, so he agreed. He returned to find the laptop in pieces, with a diagnosis of ‘the motherboard is knackered’. The kicker was that the guy wanted another £20 to put it back together again! Unbelievable.”
The blank screen of opportunity
If plumbers have a reputation for tooth-sucking and price inflation, they could soon be challenged by rogue traders that make as much as possible from each computer call-out.
Graphics card connectors can easily work loose over time, and the result is dramatic – at least to the non-technical user. A blank screen is a pretty convincing sign of a defunct computer, and a consumer faced with an apparently dead machine will be expecting to pay a hefty price to get it up and running again. Not all customers fall for the trick, however.
“I was out on a job with someone as part of training for a company I worked with,” said Toby from Scotland. “When we got there it was really obvious what the problem was – nothing more serious than the graphics card having worked loose in the AGP slot. By the time my colleague had finished huffing and puffing, he’d almost convinced the customer that he needed a new monitor and a graphics card too – and the bill would be £200. I don’t know whether he paid or went elsewhere, because I left the company after a week.”
Loose hard disk cables represent another golden opportunity, according to a PC Pro reader who used to work for an unscrupulous repair firm.
“When we opened the box up it was obvious that a SATA cable had simply come loose from the hard drive, but they didn’t want to just reconnect it as that would have meant a low bill,” said Raymond, a student from the Midlands, who left the shop after a week in disgust at the practices taking place.
“In the end, they charged them something like £100 for a new hard drive and another charge for transferring the data from the old drive, even though they had neither installed a new drive nor transferred any files.”
Sometimes, you find the scammers – other times, they find you. As PC Pro reported last year, there is a computer repair con that can strike end users before they even know they have a problem, which, of course, they don’t.
The con is both fiendishly clever and seemingly unstoppable. The fraudster cold-calls the customer and explains that Microsoft has detected a virus on their PC, then invites them to download remote-assistance software.