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August 27, 2012

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Appliance repair fraud rampant in city, hard to fix despite new rules

WHEN Li Junren's hot water heater went on the fritz two months ago, he went online and found a repairman who claimed to work for the reputable Shanghai Rinnai Co.

Li, who lives in Xuhui District, phoned the repairman, who came to his home, tinkered around with the apparatus and then told him not to turn on the water heater for an hour to let the glue dry. Li was presented an invoice for 1,700 yuan (US$274) and paid it.

When the hour was up, the heater still wasn't working, and the repairman had long vanished, with his mobile phone turned off.

"I regret my carelessness and still feel angry about it all," said Li.

It turns out the repairman didn't work for Rinnai. When Li finally contacted the legitimate company, it sent someone out, who fixed a small glitch in the water heater ignition for only 500 yuan.

Li is among numerous victims who have been fleeced by a mushrooming number of illegal home appliance repair services.

The Shanghai Consumer Rights Protection Commission said it received 1,054 complaints about such repair work in the first seven months of this year.

Enforcement called key

One of them was a Shanghai resident surnamed Cai, who complained that she was charged 1,200 yuan by a company claiming to be an after-sales service agent for Fujitsu. A repairman came to her home to fix an air conditioner, telling her to wait three hours before turning it back on.

No prizes for guessing what happened. The air conditioner still didn't work, and the company's hotline was disconnected.

At the Qiujiang Road Electronics Market in the Hongkou District, there are any number of computer repair stores, including ones suspiciously calling themselves "Samsumg" and "ASUSTeK" repair outlets. None of these companies' names appear on the official websites of the manufacturers.

A worker at the "Samsumg" outlet said he could fix any desktop computer. When asked about whether he is accredited to do the work, he replied, "You could say so."

China's Ministry of Commerce promulgated an Administrative Regulation on the Home Appliance Repair Service Industry. It came into effect in August. Whether it will successfully address the problem remains to be seen.

Those in the know describe Shanghai's home appliance repair market as extremely chaotic and tricky.

"The problem is not whether there are new regulations - we already have many of them - but rather who takes charge of monitoring that the regulations are enforced," Li Fuchun, secretary-general of the Shanghai Household Electrical Appliance Professional Association, told Shanghai Daily.

The new regulation forbids household appliance repairmen from fabricating or exaggerating repair items and from unauthorized use of manufacturers' logos.

The new rule also requires repair stores to be registered and obtain business licenses. Repairmen must have certificates showing their work credentials. Extra charges on repair fees and surreptitious replacement of functioning components are also prohibited.

Those breaking the rules will face a maximum fine of 30,000 yuan and restitution of money paid for their work.

Local authorities are left to work out implementation details. The Shanghai Commission of Commerce said that work hasn't started yet.

Many repair stores said they haven't heard of the new rules.

Jiading police recently busted a gang of four who swindled victims in a repair scam. Police were notified of their activities by angry residents. But cases like that are few and far between.

It's often hard to track down perpetrators because they take the money and run, muddying their trails, secretary Li said.

Young people who are online savvy and seniors looking for the cheapest prices are the most vulnerable groups for these swindles, Li said.

"There are many more illegal operations than legitimate ones," he said.

The city has about 18,000 home appliance repair workers, and less than 20 percent have qualification certificates.

Certification requires a minimum eight weeks of training, but many repairmen don't bother, according to the Shanghai Hualian Jiawei Professional Skills Training Center.

Charlatans simply get a hotline number starting with 400, which is easy to do, or finagle their way to the top of a repair services search engine, which tends to give them credibility. Either channel is just a matter of money.

Legitimate businesses hurt

The bogus operations are giving the legitimate trade a bad name.

Legal repair work doesn't pay all that well. An estimated 30 percent of legitimate appliance repairmen leave the industry every year.

The competition to become an authorized repair store for a brand name appliance is very fierce. That means lower fees and slim profits for repair stores.

Repairmen typically earn Shanghai's current minimum wage (1,450 yuan) plus commission, which can take their income to 3,000 yuan a month if they field a large number of calls for services.

Fan Wenyi, 51, has been an appliance repairman for 20 year. He said it is hard to earn a decent living amid so much competition from fraudsters.

His income has shrunk by half in recent years, he said, but he is forced to stay in the business because it's his only skill.

Huang Jianping, secretary-general of the Shanghai Electronic Products Repair Service Association, said he is not optimistic about the industry's future.

Currently, a large number of repairmen have flooded into Shanghai from other parts of China. If they are forced out someday by the city's high living costs and the chaotic repair market, there will be even bigger headaches for people with malfunctioning appliances, Huang said.

"We will probably face that day in five years or less," he said.


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