COMMENTARY: When big business f*cks the consumer…

ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews/31 August) – I love using SmartBro plug-its, those USB devices that enable you to go online from just about anywhere where there’s good enough cellphone signal. Having Internet almost anywhere, wow!

I could be hi-tech in some gadgets, but low-tech in some, like sticking to lowly cellphones with no 3G capability. So while others are tethered to their Facebook 24/7, I’m not. Only when I’m home on my desktop, or in some café or resto somewhere with a hotspot, or in my hotel room in Jolo with a SmartBro.

That’s why I like those SmartBro plug-its so much I must have bought four of them these past few years. One went to my son, the other to my daughter. One had difficulty getting 3G signal I just had to throw it away. But that didn’t discourage me from using Smart Bro, because the replacement I got was good. But that good one went to my son when he lost his plug-it recently.

So it was time to get another SmartBro, for my fifth purchase. Yeah, I know there’s Globe Tattoo, but I hate its download cap. I hear friends complaining they can’t go online anymore because they have reached a certain number of megabytes for the day. I already have a DSL line at home, and I don’t intend to get another postpaid Internet line for on-the-road use.

Before driving back home, I dropped by SM Cagayan de Oro and bought a SmartBro kit from Graphic, perhaps the biggest store selling mobile devices in the city. I asked the salesladies why one costs P1,245 while the other is only P995. “The more expensive one can go 5mbps, while the cheaper could only go 3mbps,” I remember them saying. Even though I’ve never ever experienced going faster than 1.5 mbps the whole time I’ve been using SmartBro, I picked the more expensive one anyway, because I just couldn’t guess when we’ll have Internet in this country as fast as the Koreans’.

As I was having lunch at Greenwich on the ground floor, I thought why not try out the SmartBro while I was still at SM, near the vendor? So I installed the software that came with it. I tried texting my Smart phone from the SmartBro, the message came through. I replied with my cellphone, and the SmartBro got it back. Hmmm … must be working properly.

But trouble began when I hit “Connect.” After a few seconds, I got this warning: “A connection could not be established to the PPP server. Try reconnecting. If the problem continues, verify your settings and contact your Administrator.”

Uh-oh. It was the first time ever that I encountered this in my years of SmartBro use. Maybe a driver issue with Apple’s recently released Mountain Lion? I doubt because just the day before I used my daughter’s SmartBro, that same black ZTE model with orange lining around the edges, and it worked okay.

Ejected the plug it, plugged again, and repeated the process. Nah … still the same notice.

As I’ve learned through years of fiddling with computers, when some error shows up, try a reboot, and big chance is it’ll work afterwards. But not this one.

Good thing I was still at SM. So after lunch I climbed up the third floor and complained to Graphic. “No Sir we don’t handle technical support. Try the Smart Wireless Center two doors away.”

Uh-oh …

So to the Wireless Center I went. “Ok Sir, let’s check it out. I’ll tell you what to do but you have to do it yourself.” She told me how to uninstall the SmartBro software by clicking the uninstall icon, and then reinstall it by clicking the installer file on the plug-it. I patiently followed her instruction, like I’m the most idiotic Mac user in the world. But nah, still won’t work, SmartBro still giving the same warning.

Then the girl told me to bring it back to Graphic and see if they’ll get it back and refund my money. So I went back, but Graphic won’t refund. The lady said the Smart Wireless Center should now be in-charge of my concern. Told them, hey, I was told to come back here but they wouldn’t believe me. Told them, okay, let’s go to Smart. One joined me, and the Smart girl (the girl who works for Smart, ok?) suggested that they refund me.

But Graphic won’t, and told me instead to go to the Smart service center where the techies are. And where’s that? At the second floor of Gateway Building at the LimKetKai Mall compound downtown, some seven kilometers away. By this time I was fuming mad. I needed to go home ASAP to attend to some urgent matters at home, a hundred kilometers away.

They sold me a defective product, and they won’t refund me, telling me to go through some convoluted process that involves going somewhere far, amid the traffic with the parade downtown on the eve of the Cagayan de Oro fiesta!

Okay, to settle this once and for all, I drove to Citylight Service Center, apparently outsourced by Smart to handle tech support. I endured the traffic, which was like Quiapo on a Friday, and going round and round in search of a parking lot. Found one finally maybe 400 meters away from Gateway Building.

The Citylight technician’s verdict: “Yes Sir, this unit is defective.” And? “If you really want to claim warranty on this one, we need certification from the Smart Wireless Center that this is still under warranty.”

What?! I have this receipt from Graphic that I bought just now! “No Sir, we won’t honor that. We need a certification from Smart.”

Arggghhh!!!

Okay, granting I’d go back to the Smart Wireless Center and get a certification, I will come back to you. And then I can have this repaired or replaced so I can go home soon? “No Sir, the process will take three to four weeks.”

WHHHAAATTT???!!!

At that time, I felt my blood pressure rising, and with all my might, I threw the SmartBro plug it to the floor, telling them they can have it! I gave them the box, the receipt, everything. You can have all that! For a measly sum you’ll torture me to death! Thank you very much!

They reminded me not to be mad at them, but to the salesladies of Graphic, or to Smart. And yes, I apologized, telling them to put themselves in my shoes. They were polite enough to just smile.

Then I rushed out, walked back to my car and drove home. But decided to stop by Jollibee to get me a cold drink, afraid that I might meet an accident if I’d drive with that temper.

It looks like Smart has this policy that when a customer complains of some faulty products, they’d invoke a process so convoluted the customer has no choice but to concede defeat. And then Smart will laugh with our money to the bank.

I’m not alone I know, and I’m sure it’s not only Smart that does this. I remember Grisham’s stories on insurance companies whose policy is to reject insurance claims outright, and acting only once the client brings the case to court. Talk about life imitating art.

Ah … I remember another case. My wife opted to buy an HP netbook last May from Gaisano Interpace partly because it came with a promo of a free RAM upgrade and free external DVD writer, to follow later. “But these items will be delayed, Ma’am, maybe a month later. But we’ll call or text you, or you follow up with our branch in Iligan.” Okay, fine, we don’t need them ASAP. A month later, I followed it up, gave them the invoice number, and they asked for the saleslady who did the transaction, and I gave the name because it was on the receipt. “Sorry, not yet here.” At almost two months later I checked again, but nah, not yet. So I joked, maybe these would be ready by fiesta (Sept. 29) or at least Christmas time. “Maybe.” Almost three months later, I checked again. “Sorry, not yet here.” So I called Interpace in Cagayan de Oro, the saleslady who made the transaction. “Sorry, Sir, it was HP’s promo, but they haven’t given us the items yet.” Can you give me the one from HP responsible for this? I called the number, but that guy doesn’t have a clue, saying it was the store’s promo, not theirs. Uh-oh … I gave up.

As they say: “When big business f*cks the consumers, it’s just business. When the consumers fight back, it’s a revolution.”

Looking back, it now appears clear to me that by giving me the run around, the Graphic saleslady was in effect applying a no return no exchange policy! I should not have thrown away that defective product and my receipt. (I still have the SmartBro’s SIM pack number though.) What I should have done was file a formal complaint with the Department of Trade and Industry since in their website (http://dtincr.ph/faq_noreturn.php), they explicitly stated that “Consumers are entitled to either an exchange or refund, as long as there is a defect in the quality of goods or imperfection in the service.”

Guys, if you ever get screwed by big business, don’t get mad. Get even! And file a complaint at DTI Consumer Complaints (http://dtincr.ph/complaint_page.php).

Oh well, the SmartBro episode is water under the bridge for me now, no intentions to pursue the case. But now considering that maybe I could live without SmartBro or without Internet while on the road. Like, I was travelling as I wrote this at the airport while waiting for my flight. Yeah, I think I’ll survive. I’d rather spend my waiting time on my Kindle instead of doing Facebook.

But … as I was about to give up having Internet on the road via a SmartBro plug-it, I saw this very tempting Android phone that can handle dual SIM, 3G, can serve as a personal wifi hotspot, three-day battery life on moderate use, large enough screen and good enough resolution. And to the ATM I went …

[Bobby Timonera is one of MindaNews’ editors. He loves tweaking computers, disassembling them down to their last parts, either for repair or cleaning up. Friends whom he has convinced shifting over to Mac jokingly refer to him as a one-man Apple service center.]

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