Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 11, NO. 9 / SEPTEMBER 1985 / PAGE 16

Undercover consumer joins the club. (editorial) Betsy Staples.

The Undercover Consumer was eating breakfast. As she nibbled on her English muffin, she flipped casually through the latest packet of coupons and incredible discount offers addressed to the occupant of her house. Pausing in mid-chew, she flipped back a few cards. There it was -- between the coupon offering 25c off a box of new improved cat treats and the order form for the genuine vinyl all-in-one-bill-fold-changepurse-check-book-calculator-note-pad -- an advertisement and application for a computer software club.

"Maybe Coleco was right," she thought. "Maybe personal computers are a mass market item--what could be more mass market than a mailing addressed to Occupant?"

Closer inspection revealed a promise to save members big bucks on popular software titles--certainly a laudable objective. The only thing that bothered her was the name: Budget Computer Softwares Club. How could anyone possessing even a rudimentary familiarity with the computer world pluralize "software"?

"Maybe they don't have a rudimentary familiarity with the computer world," she thought. "Maybe these people don't know what they are doing. Maybe their motives are less than pure." She decided to check it out.

She detached the "membership application" and mailed it that very day. Much to her disappointment, nothing happened. Several months passed with no communication from her fellow club members. Then she received a crudely mimeographed letter and a list of software prices. No mention was made of ordering the software.

About two months passed. She received a letter from the president of the company stating that they could no longer afford to "extend credit" to club members and that to remain a member of the club she would have to send him the number of one of her credit cards. Here she drew the line; not even for the sake of investigative reporting would she turn her credit card over to an organization that was sounding shadier by the minute. She did nothing.

Then one day a package arrived at her door--COD. Her curiosity piqued, she paid the $41.20 and received a copy of Infocom's Deadline. $41.20! Some discount--she had seen the package in a local computer store for $29.95. And she already had Deadline anyway, having purchased it more than three years ago when it was first released. So she returned the package unopened with a cover letter explaining that she had not requested it and asking for a refund. She was not surprised when the refund was not forthcoming.

She then called the New York State Consumer Affairs office and was referred to the local Better Business Bureau. The BBB said they had had no complaints about the company.

Several phone calls to the Softwares Club finally elicited a refund check--a happy ending, but no story for UC. Well not quite. A few weeks after depositing the refund check, it was returned as uncollectable. Calls to the Club's former telephone number are now answered with a number change recording. The new number is answered by a woman who claims no knowledge of the organization, but says that she has received many calls for the Club, including several from consumer protection agencies.

Undercover Consumer has filed a complaint with postal authorities, but is not foolish enough to expect to see her $41.20 again. She is just just thankful that her losses were limited and wonders what manner of charges might have been added to the credit card accounts of less wary souls who forwarded their credit card numbers to an outfit that didn't know enough about the business to give their company a credible name.

The moral of the story? Well it could be that software clubs are bad or that people who can't spell are not to be trusted. But this episode is really just an illustration in a much larger lesson: Computers (and software) are not yet mass market products. Expect problems if you deal with companies who treat them as such.

Once you go beyond plugging in the computer and connecting the monitor and external power supply, the chances are you will need help of some sort. User-friendly is not a term that applies to getting any computer system or software package up and running.

If you are a novice (and maybe even if you are not) remember that support from a human being is worth its weight in icons. Buy from companies whose reputations you can check and who agree to answer questions after they have pocketed your money.