Buying a personal computer by mail order is not always the low- cost, stress-free option it seems, says Vanessa Spedding
At first sight, it's a tempting prospect. Having decided to buy a new PC, you have begun to look at advertisements in the magazines - and have noticed that computers bought mail-order from small companies can be hundreds of pounds cheaper than the same machines with famous brand names. No wonder: small companies can bolt PCs together from components at minimal cost, and have no expensive executives in an office block half- way across the world to pay for. But buying mail-order has its pitfalls, as several readers of the Independent can attest.

Richard Sizeland of Leicestershire bought a computer from Time Computer, one of Britain's leading mail-order houses, in October 1994. It was only when the machine developed a fault some weeks later that Mr Sizeland discovered how much harder it was to contact the company's support lines than its sales department. Barry Reed, from Sutton, ordered £1,500-worth of computer equipment from Time Computer Systems by credit card in December, and was promised delivery by the second week of January. It didn't arrive - and when Mr Reed contacted Time, he was told that the firm was holding back his machine because a £20 piece of software (Labels for Windows, which was not actually necessary for booting up) was not in stock. The PC had still not arrived by 30 January, when Reed informed his credit-card company of the situation. It took five phone calls and three faxes before Time offered him another piece of software and some free disks as compensation for his trouble. He chose a refund instead, but was angry to find so much of his time and telephone bill wasted.

Another reader, Helen Watson, complained that Time Computer Systems sent her a PC with an SX chip when she had expected a DX. The firm asked her to return the computer for an upgrade (and also to fix a defective CD- rom drive); but it took six weeks to organise its return to Watson in an acceptable state. The company suddenly became more reasonable after she threatened to take her complaints to the press.

The Independent has received more complaints about Time Computer Systems than about any other company. But there is no reason to believe it is any worse than dozens of other mail-order companies. Many firms have problems with their suppliers - and find it easier to prevaricate than give their customers the real reason for delays.

But the consumer's plight is not hopeless. William Brafman, a technology specialist at the London law firm Cameron Markby Hewitt, says the 1994 version of the Sale of Goods Act - now the Sale and Supply of Goods Act - takes care to cover mail-order purchasers. It states, among other things, that goods should be "satisfactory" - and in particular should meet their description, justify their price, and be of a quality that a reasonable person would regard as satisfactory. They should also be safe and free from minor defects.

This vague-sounding formula provides consumers with some leverage if they know how to use it. If the Act has been contravened, or there has been a breach of contract, the company can be sued - for a full refund, for damages, or both. If the outstanding amount is greater than £750 and remains owing for more than three weeks after a demand for payment has been issued, disgruntled customers can even ask a court for an order to wind up the company. This may sound extreme, and will seldom be necessary, but armed with this knowledge, consumers need not feel so resigned to their miserable lot. The threat of action alone can often be enough to trigger a response.

Cameron Markby Hewitt, solicitors: 0171 702 2345.

ten golden rules for buying computers by mail-order

1. If possible, buy from a company enrolled in the Mail Order Protection Scheme (MOPS, 0171-405 6806). Look out for the logo. The scheme insures consumers for "cash-off-the-page" advertisements (whereby you send a deposit with your order) in the national daily newspapers.

2. Pay by credit card, not by charge card, cheque or Switch. Credit card companies offer some protection against substandard goods, or non- delivery, depending on your agreement with them. Some may baulk at compensation, but the law says that on transactions between £100 and £30,000, the card company is jointly liable with the computer company if things go wrong.

3. If complaints fall on deaf ears, contact your local Trading Standards Officer (see the telephone directory) - and tell the supplier that you are doing so. TSOs have the power to prosecute a trading company for a criminal offence. Although they will not do so on your behalf, the very threat of involving them will often do the trick. Say also that you are prepared to take the proceedings to the county court.

4. Contact the relevant press - and tell the mail order company that you are doing so. If the original ad was misleading, call the Advertising Standards Authority, 0171-580 5555.

5. Keep a record of all exchanges between you and the others involved. This helps to pin down suppliers' lies and inconsistencies.

6. Fax confirmation of the contents of each phone call with the supplier to them as soon as it has occurred, if possible. A record in writing is harder to deny.

7. If the company refuses to give satisfaction, lobby the credit card company for a refund through them. This can also help to put pressure on the supplier, since credit card firms hate to deal with fly-by-night merchants.

8. If all else fails, contact your local County Court Registrar (in the phone book under Courts), who, for a fee of about £20, will send you the relevant forms and issue proceedings against the outfit concerned. If the amount is less than £5,000, the small claims court will deal with it; this offers a more friendly, informal environment where, says William Brafman of the London law firm Cameron Markby Hewitt, "they will bend over backwards to help small guys being ripped off by big guys". A solicitor should not be necessary unless the matter gets as far as the winding-up petition.

9. If the supplier has already gone into liquidation, try the Periodical Publishers Association (0171-379 6268). Its insurance covers customers who suffer from bankrupt companies that have advertised with their members.

10. Finally, always watch that you are not breaching the laws of defamation. You must be able to substantiate your complaints and must not exaggerate; otherwise, you could be in as much trouble as your supplier.