Home Computer: How to stay afloat in the cut-throat PC bazaar: More than pounds 1m has been lost by personal computer buyers in recent company collapses. David Hewson gives some hints on protecting your money when buying by mail order

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The Independent Online
A PERSONAL computer is one of the most sophisticated and expensive items ever likely to enter your life. So why is it that acquiring one makes you feel as if you have walked naked into the Great Marrakesh Bazaar on the day the trading standards people came down with couscous tummy?

One of the most common questions asked by the putative PC purchaser is: how do I buy safely and reliably through the pages of a magazine? Provided you understand the rules, buying by mail order is safe and cost effective. Throw caution to the winds, however, and you could lose every penny.

Earlier this year the Independent revealed some of the cost of backing a turkey in the direct mail business. Our investigations showed that two failed direct mail enterprises and a simple fraud had taken nearly pounds 1.2m from businesses and individuals for computers that were never delivered. Competition is hotter than ever in the PC world and margins grow smaller, so more failures are predicted.

The aim has to be to get the PC you want, when you want it, and to have your money secured during the time it leaves you and the moment it is translated into a working computer on your desk. Here, then, are the five golden rules of buying direct.

Know what you want

You can spend all day on the telephone asking various company salesmen to advise you of your needs, but 20 different companies will probably give 20 different answers. Do your research before you start shopping around for prices, write down a specification for the machine you want - 33 megahertz 486 central processor, 4 megabytes of main memory (ram), 120 megabyte hard disk, for example - and then get quotes. If you need software, then put that into your specification. Most sellers will offer software as part of the deal, even if they do not advertise it, but be wary of paying for things you do not need.

Protect your payment

One of the unique things about direct mail computers and one of the reasons the industry has grown so fast, is that you, the willing sucker, are prepared to pay for your computer before you get it, sometimes long before. The suspicion is always that some traders are using your cash to buy in the stock they need to fulfil the transaction. If yours goes under while you are waiting, you stand to lose every penny, unless you are covered by some form of consumer protection.

There are two main kinds. The Consumer Credit Act forces the credit card companies to accept responsibility for unfulfilled orders bought on their cards of goods costing between pounds 100 and pounds 30,000. But watch out for the loopholes. Items under pounds 100 will not be covered unless part of the package price.

The cover also extends to credit cards only. Any cards that require you to pay the outstanding balance in full, or which take the cash straight out of your bank account - which means most small business credit cards - are not covered by the Act. So American Express and Switch cards do not bring you automatic cover, though the companies may reimburse you at their discretion.

The second form of protection lies in the schemes operated by the computer magazines. These are considered inferior to credit card schemes and if something goes wrong they will sometimes take a longer to stump up the cash. So pay by personal credit card whenever possible and read the magazine fine print to make sure you understand its scheme - a few require you to register the purchase with them. If you pay by cash or by cheque, you can only look to the magazine scheme.

Know when you are going to get it

In an ideal world, a PC should be in stock the day you order it. But making and flogging PCs is a fast-moving business and, quite genuinely, next day delivery is not always possible. Every good advertiser will quote you a delivery period. The maximum you should accept is 10 days and insist that not a penny is charged to your credit card until the order goes out of the door.

Beware of anyone who is vague. 'We are expecting a delivery next week' usually means 'if you order one now we will get on the telephone to see if the manufacturer has any in stock and our credit is still good with them'. Imprecision on the part of a mail order supplier should set the nerves jangling.

Find out who you are dealing with

The companies that advertise in the magazines break down into two distinct categories - manufacturers selling PCs they have made themselves direct to you, and resellers, who buy in other people's machines and sell them on. A few do a little of both. Both resellers and manufacturers may be huge international corporations or two men and a dog in a back street warehouse in Clapham. The latter may deliver you a good computer at a very good price. The big companies go out of business far less often, though.

The difference in price between a machine made by the big companies and one run up in the back streets is a lot less than it used to be. If you know someone who has bought from a small company and is delighted with the service, then it is worth thinking about the same route. Otherwise, steer clear.

Make sure you are covered if the machine goes wrong

It is amazing how many people new to computers assume that, because the things are high tech, they never go wrong. Well, they do, usually a few days after the manufacturer's warranty has expired. Never buy a PC without a three-year warranty. This will usually cost you more money, though a few companies, such as Compaq, include three years' cover in their price. The real price of your PC is the one that includes the breakdown cover - do not fool yourself into thinking otherwise.

Finally, if you have problems, complain quickly and loudly - to the magazine where you saw the advert, to your local trading standards officers. The computer industry gets away with far too much. Late deliveries, bug-ridden software and peripherals that do not work are meant to be things we take for granted. Well, they should not be.

(Photograph omitted)

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