Confessions of a computer repairman

Stewart Mitchell reveals what really happens to your PC when it's handed over to computer repair cowboys

When your PC breaks down – assuming you can’t fix it yourself – the first port of call is often a professional repairer who might just be able to rescue that vital data, restore the operating system without losing your photos, or get that graphics card working again.

Whether it’s an independent trader plucked from the Yellow Pages, or a local odd-jobber advertising on a card in the newsagents, however, it’s difficult to distinguish between the true professionals and fly-by-night rogues.

High-street companies have been widely criticised for a lack of technical knowledge that can leave customers frustrated, while a handful of private repair outfits appear to be actively ripping-off end users.

It’s important that end users choose a repairman or company carefully

“These people are in a minority, but they give the industry a bad name,” said Dan Hand, chairman of the Association of Computer Repair Business Owners (ACRBO). “Whether it’s people going through customer files, looking in their documents, or failing to actually install hardware that customers have paid for – it does go on. It’s important that end users choose a repairman or company carefully.”

According to people working within the industry, finding a repairman is a lottery, with no qualifications required to start trading and precious little comeback if things go wrong.

Even established repair shops can employ a slew of tricks to inflate their profits, and although they’re the exception rather than the rule, the tales of woe listed here will highlight the scams to watch out for.

We’re not naming and shaming rogue traders in this article, but examining the tricks of the trade and downright cons that have been revealed to us by repairmen. The stories highlight both the difficulty in finding someone trustworthy, and how hard it can be to recognise that a scam has even been committed.

All the stories mentioned here have been witnessed or participated in by repairmen talking to PC Pro, or by the professionals left to pick up the pieces when the original cowboy left a computer in a worse state than when it arrived. Some names have been changed to protect our sources.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Given that many computer repairmen advertise their services on lamppost flyers with nothing more than a mobile phone number, they can be difficult to track down if anything goes wrong. We’ve spoken to repairmen who have explained how this works in practice, and it can be a costly lesson to learn for the unsuspecting victims.

“Sure, we can fix this, but we’ll need to take it down to the workshop to fit the replacement parts or run tests,” is the basic modus operandi. “We’ll have it back to you by the weekend.”

In reality, this is code for “thanks for the computer, we’ll look forward to selling it at the car boot sale this weekend”. The repair company that explained this wheeze to us said it found out about the con when a frantic victim phoned up asking whether it had collected his computer. When the client had phoned all the repairmen in the phone book, he realised the hardware was gone for good.

“You should never use someone purely through a mobile number,” said John Finlay, who runs the computer shop Fixnsell in Blackpool. “There was a spate of it around here, with several machines picked up in a couple of weeks.”

The “beyond repair” bluff

Unscrupulous repair shops thrive on the fact that most customers have limited knowledge of what’s happening inside their computer, and that’s especially true if the machine won’t even power up.

“We had a girl come into the shop last week and she was really upset that her laptop was what one of our rivals described as a ‘write-off’,” said independent shop owner Ian Sharples.

“She’d taken it in there because there was a problem booting and it wasn’t powering up. The guy explained to her that the motherboard was knackered and it really wasn’t worth repairing.”

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