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Consummate Consumer

The Warranty: Get It in Writing

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2005; Page C10

Five years ago, Zhigang Wang helped his son, Ruojiang, and his family buy a sofa, loveseat and sectional from the RoomStore in Chantilly. The furniture cost $5,750 -- a big investment.

When the salesman mentioned a five-year fabric-protection warranty, they were interested. When he told them it was a "no-use, no-lose" warranty, says Zhigang, they were sold.

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"He emphasized that if we had not used the policy by the end of five years, we would get the money back," says Zhigang.

The Wangs paid the $207. Since they never used the warranty, last month they returned to the store for their refund and were stunned to be told that the salesman, who was no longer employed there, had been mistaken. Zhigang says they were told that the no-use, no-lose policy wasn't available until Jan. 1, 2000 -- a couple of weeks after they bought the furniture and warranty.

What happens when a salesman makes a promise he can't keep? Or makes an honest mistake? Or lies? This is the most fundamental of consumer issues, one experts say requires a no-brainer precaution, one so simple that it's often neglected by consumers: Get it in writing.

The Legal Consumer Guide, an online consumer-law resource, recommends that buyers "read and understand any contract you are asked to sign. Make sure that all the blanks are filled in and that any verbal promises made by the salesperson are also in writing."

The Federal Trade Commission's consumer guide to warranties gives similar advice: "If a salesperson makes a promise orally, such as that the company will provide free repairs, get it in writing. Otherwise, you may not be able to get the service that was promised."

Zhigang says: "We just believed what he said."

Ned Crosby, spokesman at RoomStore Furniture's Richmond headquarters, says that although the Wangs didn't have all the documentation, the company would honor their claim.

The lesson to be learned is that keeping papers and receipts is essential, says Crosby. "Whatever you are buying -- electronics, cars, furniture, high-ticket items -- you have to file the papers like you do your insurance policy."

Update: Music Downloads

After the Dec. 28 column on the dangers of downloading music online, Meghan Formel of LimeWire e-mailed to say her the file-swapping company stopped forcing "unwanted bundled software" on its users as of last May. LimeWire, she says, now has "zero adware and zero spyware" -- the troublesome programs that hide in the background of infected computers to deliver advertising and track Internet use.

LimeWire customers now can choose basic service, which is the free version of LimeWire, or download a six-month LimeWire Pro version for $18.88 to get upgraded music search results, faster download speeds, connections to more sources and technical support.

Formel says the decision not to profit from "a bunch of pop-ups and spyware" has already paid off. "Since we've stopped," she says, "we've seen a substantial increase in the number of users."

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The Legal Consumer Guide, at www.legalconsumerguide.com, provides general legal information to help consumers understand their rights.

The Federal Trade Commission's consumer pamphlet on warranties is available at www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/products/warrant.htm.

Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to oldenburgd@washpost.comor write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.


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