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Think twice before buying a digital TV converter box from this man

June 27, 2008 |  3:53 pm
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As if the digital TV transition weren't perplexing enough, consumers now need to worry about being conned.

Polls have consistently shown that many people are confused by the upcoming digital TV transition -- the government-mandated switch by most broadcast TV stations to all digital signals starting Feb. 18. There's a lot to be confused about. People aren't sure if they need a new TV to continue receiving over-the-air signals, or if they should apply for the two $40 coupons available to any U.S. household to purchase a converter box so an old analog set can pick up the new digital broadcasts.

The friendly folks at Universal TechTronics say they are here to help.

In newspaper ads nationwide (above example is from the Cincinnati Enquirer), the Canton, Ohio-based company has been offering two free digital-to-analog converter boxes (a previous version of this post said analog-to-digital), without the hassle of applying for those government coupons. All you need to do is buy a five-year warranty at $59 for each of the Miracle ClearView TV boxes, which according to the ad is, "a real steal."

The problem, according to the Better Business Bureau, is that unsuspecting consumers are the ones being stolen from.

The ads are "a bait-and-switch tactic that prey on consumers' lack of knowledge" about the conversion, the Better Business Bureau said in a recent warning. The group noted that, including shipping and handling, each box ends up costing significantly more than if you used a $40 government coupon for any of several converter box models that sell for from $49 to $59. If ordered within 72 hours of the ad's publication, the box costs $68.30 (including shipping), according to the company. After 72 hours, the total goes up to $97.30.

"They’re really targeting the senior citizens who are going to be confused and not up-to-date on the technology,'' said Alison Preszler, a spokeswoman for the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

The ad is designed to look like a news article ...

... and features that smiling older gentleman displaying his actual warranty certificates (download a more readable copy of the whole ad here). The Better Business Bureau has seen the ad appear in newspapers in Portland, Ore.; Memphis, Tenn.;  Atlantic City, N.J.; Charlotte, N.C.; and the state of Ohio (if you've seen others, let us know in the comments below).

The converter box program, run by the National Telecommunication and Information Administration, began Jan. 1, and this is the first large-scale scam the Better Business Bureau has seen, Preszler said. The group has reported problems before with the company, which also does business as Heat Surge, distributing electric fireplaces with "Authentic Amish Crafted Premium Wood Mantles" (There is no claim of Amish workmanship on the converter boxes.)

The NTIA also has had problems with Heat Surge. In the spring, the company was removed from a list of retailers certified to accept the government's converter box coupons because its advertising was misleading because it was selling the boxes under the Universal TechTronics name, NTIA spokesman Todd Sedmak said.

The agency is investigating to determine if the company has violated any program rules or federal laws, Sedmak said. Although the ads say that the Miracle ClearView TV box is certified by the NTIA, it isn't on the list of certified boxes.

John Armstrong, vice president and general counsel of Heat Surge, said the converter boxes were certified models made by Philco that have been rebranded Miracle ClearView, with extended warranties. Heat Surge decided to offer an alternative to the coupon program after being decertified by NTIA, he said.

“We thought what we could do is offer a warranty that goes well beyond what a consumer could find at a retail outlet,” Armstrong said. He said the ads were not misleading.

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Puzzanghera, a Times staff writer, covers tech and media policy from Washington, D.C.

Photo: A Universal TechTronics ad from the May 20 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer, courtesy of the Better Business Bureau.

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