Austin American Statesman
March 1, 2002

 

Looking for a car?
From the March 1, 2002 edition of the Austin American-Statesman

TODAY'S EDITION (March 1, 2002)

Business news:

Dell system backfires on gunsmith's order.

Computer maker's software cancelled laptop purchase because name contained 'combat,' spokesman says
By John Pletz

American-Statesman Staff

Friday, March 1, 2002

Sometimes you can have too much technology for your own good, even at a high-tech giant such as Dell Computer Corp.

A seemingly well-intended computer program backfired on Dell, leaving the world's largest computer seller ducking for cover from gun owners.  Jack Weigand, who runs a small gunsmithing business in rural Pennsylvania, said Dell rejected his order for a notebook computer because the name of his company, Weigand Combat Handguns Inc., raised a red flag in Dell's computerized ordering system.

A miffed Weigand fired back, fighting Dell on its own turf: the Internet, which Dell has championed as the epitome of direct customer interaction. He wrote about his experiences in three Net gun owners' Web forums Tuesday afternoon, unleashing some gun owners' wrath upon Dell.

Dell acknowledged that it mistakenly rejected Weigand's order without contacting him.

Spokeswoman Cathie Hargett said Weigand got caught in a system the company has used for at least five years to guard against violating a U.S. export law that bans selling computer technology to people in certain countries, such as Syria and Iraq, or to known terrorists, for fear the technology could be used against the United States.

"It's the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding and a series of unfortunate circumstances," she said.

Hargett said Dell automatically scans its customer database -- after an order is taken but before the computer is built -- for certain words that might indicate a potential problem.

"One thing we scan for are words like nuclear, missile and combat," she said.

Other triggers include computers being ordered from one location but shipped to another address and an unusual amount of equipment, such as multiple high-powered servers, being shipped to an apartment or hotel.  Once a red flag comes up, the company said, a salesperson is supposed to contact the customer to ask follow-up questions, such as where the computer is destined to go, who will be using it and what they'll be using it for. Then the company decides whether to process the order.

"Under normal circumstances, (Weigand) would have gotten an immediate follow-up call to verify where computer going, who to and what used for," Hargett said. "In this case, we neglected to follow up with him and canceled the order without communicating with him."

Weigand said he placed an order for a Dell laptop on Feb. 13 and was scheduled to receive the computer eight days later.  He was able to track his order through Dell's Web site but soon discovered that the order was stalled. After the delivery date passed and no computer arrived, Weigand called Dell.

A salesperson called back to tell him the order automatically had been canceled shortly after it was placed because of the words "combat" and "handguns" in his company's name and because of concerns that he might do something illegal.

The same policy didn't extend to the company's marketing department. Weigand said he contacted Dell because the company had been sending sales brochures to his business for more than a year.

Weigand doesn't sell guns at his shop near Wilkes-Barre. A champion target shooter who is president of the American Pistolsmiths Guild, Weigand says he specializes in mounting scopes onto pistols and customizing target weapons.  He said the whole problem could have been avoided with a phone call or a cursory check of his 17-year-old company's Web site.

"No one ever called," he said. "That's what really bothered me."

Weigand posted his tale about 1 p.m. on Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, he'd received more than 250 responses from forum readers and an apology from Dell, including the offer to not only accept his order but to give him the computer for free.

"The person who called back was amazed by response they got," Weigand said. "He offered his sincerest apologies."

Dell might as well have snubbed Charlton Heston.

"It raised a big stink," Weigand said. "This has been real rallying point. I hope other manufacturers realize that this kind of response can happen to anybody that would discriminate against (gun owners) for no good reason."

Hargett stressed that Weigand wasn't targeted because of his ties to the gun industry.

"It wasn't the word firearm; it was 'combat,' " she said. "A person with a pest-control company named Combat Pest Control would encounter the same treatment."

Weigand declined the free computer.

"It was a nice offer -- it was a $1,500 computer," he said but added that taking the PC would be hypocritical. "I have no intention of dealing with them again. There are a lot of different computer companies out there. Maybe I'll be treated better by someone else. I think I'm going to walk up to Best Buy."

jpletz@statesman.com; 445-3601