Help! Dell is holding my “hot” computer hostage

Geri Bain’s “hot” computer is missing in action. Why won’t Dell repair it? And why won’t it return her laptop?

Question: I recently called Dell’s technical team because my computer was overheating and I had burnt my fingers. I was told that, despite the fact that my computer was five years old, it would be treated as a safety recall and that I should send photos of the computer, my burnt fingers and a doctor’s note.

The technician stated that Dell would send me a prepaid FedEx box to send my computer in and that I could expect a replacement within 7 to 10 days. A long series of delays and hand-offs seems to have landed my computer in a black hole in Dell’s insurance department.

At one point, a Texas-based supervisor said he would send the replacement that day, but needed sign-off from the insurance company. After speaking with Dell’s insurer, he said he could do nothing and further communication would be through the insurance company.

At his request, I sent a note saying I had no intention of suing and only wanted the replacement computer I was promised. There was still no response and no computer. Dell has now had my computer for more than two months. Can you help me get it back? — Geri Bain, Mendham, NJ

Answer: Dell should either fix your PC and return it, or send you a replacement. Keeping your laptop is not an option.

Before I get to the fix, let me fill in a few details. I followed up with you and asked for a more detailed timeline, and I’m sure readers will be curious, especially those of us who use Dell computers.

By your account, your five-year-old computer was not flaming hot, but warm to the touch. According to your notes, a technician told you the warm keyboard was a “safety issue” and promised a replacement. You were asked to furnish Dell with a doctor’s note and photos of the computer, which you did. Then you sent your PC back to the company in a box it provided.

The warranty on your laptop expired long ago. It might have covered the overheating issue you say you experienced, but Dell’s longest warranty is four years. Dell, like other computer manufacturers, offers an extended warranty on its products, which costs more.

Personally, I have a problem with paying more for something that should be included in the product (AppleCare, are you reading this?). Also, I think there’s a time to go by the book — and a time to throw out the book. Smoldering keyboards is one such case. Who cares about the warranty? Your fingers were hot.

By the way, at five years, your computer is a dinosaur. The average PC is over the hill within two years of your purchase and obsolete within four. Do you really want that clunker back?

You could have made someone higher up at Dell aware of your hostage drama. I list the names and emails of executives on my consumer advocacy site. But behind the scenes, it turns out, there was even more drama going on.

At about the same time you shipped your computer back to the company, Dell became a private company, which shouldn’t have affected your case, but apparently did.

In its last communication with you, Dell said it had tested your computer and found no evidence of an overheating problem. “The system will be returned when the insurance claim generated by this complaint is closed,” it promised.

I made numerous efforts to reach the company on your behalf. Some of my contacts were no longer with the company, thanks to the buyout. In the end, my efforts to advocate for your computer’s return fell on deaf ears.

In an effort to apply pressure, you also filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. But that didn’t work, either.

Dell still has your computer. At this point, I think your best option is to file a complaint in New Jersey small claims court. I think a judge will be more persuasive at getting the company to replace your laptop, or at least release your old one.

Should Dell keep the computer?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook - LinkedIn - Google Plus

  • Andre_K_FL

    Sounds like this is one of those machines affected by the defective NVIDIA graphic chipset issues that caused system failures and severe overheating. The settlement absolved the actual computer manufacturers from having to take any responsibility for the issue, including to people that were never informed of the existence of the suit. Additionally, in the suit, people were only given low-end barebones models as replacements for their defective computers. It is considered one of the biggest injustices in the consumer electronics industry.

  • Justin

    A five year old computer is obsolete. Chances are one of the fans (CPU or Video Card) have ceased to function. Thus, the computer is overheating. I wonder if the pc shuts down or crashes after extended use, too.

    Chances of Dell replacing a five year old monetarily obsolete computer are none. Suing in small claims MIGHT get a few dollars and the pc returned. I don’t understand why Dell doesn’t just mail the unit back to OP.

    Best case here is a return of pc and maybe a few bucks. No judge is going to order Dell replace the computer or pony up significant cash. Op needs to contact NJ Attorney General.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Was this a government settlement. Otherwise a settlement is only binding upon 1)parties or 2)class action members who were notified of the class action and failed to op out.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Well, the suit should be not only for the value of the computer, but also for the injuries caused by the computer overheating. That’s how the OP would get a new computer from Dell

  • VoR61

    Not sure about that. Chris is saying it’s a laptop …

  • sdir

    I’m curious, if Dell promised her a replacement laptop, would a small claims judge force Dell to hold up their promise? Assuming, of course, that such a promise was documented in an email for example.

  • sdir

    Chris, you mention the keyboard was “warm” and not “flaming-hot”, so how exactly was she burned? If it was hot enough to sustain injury, I wouldn’t simply call that warm to the touch.

  • Christopher Elliott

    This case is far from over. I just received another update this morning, and Bain still hasn’t received a replacement computer. Perhaps this story will expedite the outcome. Then again, perhaps not.

  • Blackadar

    “Dude, you got f***ed* by Dell”

    The OP should file in small claims court for the replacement cost of his computer and his medical bills. Sometimes that’s the only way to get poor companies to do the right thing.

  • Raven_Altosk

    *insert snarky MacHead comment about using an inferior product here*

    But really? This is unacceptable. Send the lady a replacement already.

  • Justin

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but the OP has to demonstrate how he was aggrieved and the injuries suffered.

    1) OP might argue programs and content lost.. Solution:. Dell returns “broken pc”..
    2) OP claims fingers burned: I’m Skeptical.

    A doctor’s note stating finger injury doesn’t prove where the injury occurred or if the keyboard is at fault. Only exception is if the OP took pc to doctor’s office and a correlation was made between pc and finger injury.

    Honestly, I doubt the OP. , I am highly suspect of Dell’s offer to replace a five year old, out of warranty unit with a brand new one. Does Chris have emails stating the promise or is the OP claiming verbal phone conversations?

    Too much doesn’t add up here…….At best, OP sues to get broken PC back and Dell pays court costs….?

  • Justin

    I am VERY SUSPECT of Dell promising a NEW pc to replace a five year old out of warranty unit. If Dell made the offer in writing then Dell is one hell of a standup company.

  • Justin

    A five year old laptop is worthless. Computers go out of date within a year or two. Now, the laptop might still be functional, but the market value is null. 100 bucks if lucky.

  • John Baker

    Short version… Dell owes him a computer. Period. If they aren’t going to fix the one he sent, they need to return it. If they lost it or destroyed it, they need to replace it.

    I’d say its time to visit small claims court to apply some pressure.

  • Justin


    Does the OP have promises in writing? The articles gives an impression all “promises” are verbal via the phone.

    One becomes highly suspect of an arrangement to replace a five year old, out of warranty pc, with a brand new unit without written proof. Please update us here.

  • Alan Gore

    Dell is having major financial problems right at the moment and has just had a massive layoff. Employee morale will be at record lows and I don’t see much chance that anyone in Round Rock is going to want to pay much attention to an out-pf-warranty laptop. Although Dell is still the biggest and most trusted name in the PC market since IBM exited the business, PC sales for all manufacturers are collapsing as people who “consume” information for browsing, videos and personal communication are switching to those easier-to-use tablets. At the same time, “producers” of information are stepping up to Apple, which offers desktops starting at $600.

    Whenever you buy a computer, become familiar with the sound of its fan(s), which carry heat out of the unit. Some machines have constant-speed fans, while others speed up when the machine is ‘sweating’ under a heavy workload and generating more heat. Later changes in the sound of the fans can give you early warning of problems. Older computers, especially laptops, typically have sucked in dust, lint and cat hair long enough to have become physically clogged. Just opening the machine up (or having it done at a local repair shop) and vacuuming the stuff our will generally fix the problem. Of course, if you one day don’t hear the fan at all. you have an acute problem and must power off immediately until the machine can be fixed.

  • Justin

    You’re skeptical of most stories written by Chris, but suddenly believe Dell promises a new computer for a five year old, out of warranty, unit? I’ve got a bridge for sale, because unless I’m reading wrong, the exchanges were via the phone. Read no written proof.

    I might be wrong, but I want proof. Dell probably offered a courtesy repair IF problems were found, but now wants payment since no issues were discovered. Other scenario is Dell misplaced unit before shipment.

  • VoR61

    I wasn’t referring to it’s worth, but to your suspicion about the fans. I agree about the value at 5 years.

  • emanon256

    Wow! Shame on Dell. Problem or not, they have no business keeping her computer that long.

    If it was really just warm, what did the Dr.s note say? Laptops get very hot, and if it’s that old, most likely the cooling system is riddled with dust and its going to get hotter. I thought (at first) it was commendable that Dell was willing to fix it, but then Dell showed that they are still evil. I hope she sues them. Heck, why not persue criminal charges? This sounds more like theft.

    I had a very bad experience with Dell once. I paid extra for a special “no wait” tech-support service. It said, in writing, that they guaranteed I could speak with a real live person within 5 minutes every time I called. It said if the wait is ever longer than 5 minutes, they would cut me a check for $25 each and every time. This was all in writing, and I paid $90 extra for it. Every time I called, the wait was between 20 minutes and 60 minutes. Every time I mentioned the $25 and they always said they took down my info and I would get a check, I never did. I appealed to a supervisor, and he asked for a copy of service contract stating this, as well as times and dates of calls. I sent them all in. He never got back to me and stopped returning my calls. I went to the BBB and filed a complaint. Dell responded and said this was a service they used to offer, and that its no longer offered which is why they haven’t paid me. I send more letters and complaints to Dell which all fell on deaf ears. As I had paid an additional $90 for this service, I asked for that back, and never got it. I have avoided Dell ever since.

  • EdB

    This has moved beyond the “what did Dell promise” question. They have her computer and haven’t sent anything back yet. Doesn’t matter if thet fix it or replace it, they have an obligation to send her original laptop back or a replacement. They need to do one or the other.

  • Justin

    Sorry, I misunderstood. Well the only reason a component overheats is due to cooling. Logical assumption is the CPU or GPU are getting hot. However, I don’t believe either are heating to the level of “burns” unless there are pictures of the keys melting.

    Modern pcs are meant to shut down if overheating. Not like the old days of AMD’s processors frying themselves. So bit hard to believe the OP.

  • Nigel Appleby

    What isn’t mentioned is did the OP do a back up before sending the computer to Dell? Should have done. If not the main reason for it back would be to get all the data and possibly some programs to transfer into a new lap top, I think it inevitable that the willbe getting a new laptop sooner rather than later and she will be paying for it.
    My daughter had problems with Dell some years ago and now she and I avoid them like the plague.

  • Justin

    Agreed. I wonder though if it’s being held for financial ransom. Op was offered a courtesy repair ONLY if problem was clearly duplicated. No problem found, and OP doesn’t want to pay the bill. Just a thought.

    Otherwise, Dell probably misplaced unit and then is on the hook to locate or replace.

  • Justin

    Contractual breach rather than theft. I am sure Carver will chime in validating that theft comes with malicious intent. Dell actions weren’t motivated by intent to deprive, but by carelessness at best (lost laptop). Small claims…

  • VoR61

    I agree on both counts (CPU overheating and “hard to believe”). In my IT experience, laptops shut down. For a keyboard to become so hot that fingertips are “burnt” (the OPs word) would be highly unusual indeed.

  • emanon256

    I’m curious what Carver will say too. I did find that under Texas Law, one of the definitions of theft is:

    “To withhold property from the owner permanently or for so extended a period of time that a major portion of the value or enjoyment of the property is lost to the owner.”

    But good point, I think they still need intent, and there is no apparent intent. It just bothers me that they took it, and simply won’t return it. Just giver her the existing laptop back.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Dell sent a box for the woman to send her computer back, despite the warranty being out of date. That’s why I believe the story. They took possession of the computer and now are doing the Texas Two Step. Sounds to me like they lost it.

    Hence why I said “send the lady a replacement already.”

  • Stereoknob

    It would be great if you could charge companies for keeping your laptop this long ala rental car companies “loss of use” fee. What if he is now delayed on his taxes and incurs a penalty or some other scenario. Two months is a long time to have your machine missing… plus all of the data on there.

  • Joe Farrell

    Did Dell promise the guy a new computer? Who knows – where is the tape? All the calls are recorded. Sue the company and send a document production request for the tape. Then we’ll know.

    ‘Something’ happened because Dell sent him a box. Dell does not send people free computer boxes and a Fedex label just because they ask. Why did they do that? What spurred them on to provide this service for a 5 year old laptop? Thats the question. Answer it and everything is explained. They’ll send you a box and a label if you pay them for it – or if its a warranty repair. Absent that – no freebies.

    Moving on, they apparently asked him to send in the computer. [see comment re: free box]. He did. He hasa claim for its return, or absent that, for its fair market value. That FMV is not only the hardware but the value of the software on it – such as a paid for Office suite, and anything else that may need to be purchased again. If he is required to buy new versions of the software, whose fault is that again? Dell for retaining the computer – it was working even if it was running hot –

    And a doctors note? What do they care about a Doctors note? This sounds like a fact made up by a person who made up a story that their laptop was running warm – there is no claim of personal injury here – how do you burn your fingers? It got that hot that fast?

    There are alot of suspicious facts here – but – once we know why Dell sent the computer box then we will know whats up with the story.

  • Justin

    Sending a box proves squat outide the fact either the lady wanted the pc repaired for a fee or Dell offered a courtesy repair.

    Dell has a responsibility to return the computer (at fault). There might be an issue of outstanding payment to why the pc hasn’t been returned. Just a thought.

  • Justin

    Agreed. Return the laptop, assuming no debt is owed on repair. A little birdie asks did the woman ship back the computer and is now upset that no problems were found. Thus not wanting to pay.

    Might have been a courtesy repair and Dell lost laptop, too. We don’t know the situation without proof or emails.

  • Fishplate

    If there’s no intent, there’s still a question of negligence…for which the remedy is to return the OP’s property, or a suitable replacement. Surely there’s a refurbished laptop somewhere at Dell.

  • Justin

    The whole story sounds awry. Yes, there were instances of Dell’s catching fire. Unless the OP has a video of the keys melting or pc bursting into flames, I remain skeptical.

  • Bill___A

    This is pretty odd. The keyboard should be damaged if it got hot. Furthermore, a realistic problem should show up before five years is up. For the record, Dell’s longest warranties are longer than four years. I buy five year warranties on my laptops, and I have seen maintenance extended even beyond that on network equipment.
    In any case, at five years, if the computer malfunctions, it should be replaced by the user. I don’t know how Dell got caught up in this in the first place. They should return the computer.

  • VoR61

    That works for desktops, but this is a laptop ..

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Fair questions.

    In order

    1. Dell is not responsible for the lost content and programs. That damage is not within the contemplation of the sale of the computer. If the programs and content were so valuable then OP should take steps to protect them (backups, insurance, etc.) The term in consequential damages.

    2. That’s a factual question. It depends on what the doctor’s note says. Are the OPs injuries consistent with what is alleged. For examples, if the burns were on his knuckles, probably not. By contrast, if the burns were mostly on the underside of the fingertips, better argument.

    Remember, the OP only have to prove his case by 51% likelihood. He states he was burned by his computer. If he can bring in evidence that this particular model was known to overheat, and he brings medical evidence that he was injured, and his injuries were consistent with his story, he’s easily made his case. The burden then falls to Dell to disprove the story.

    And again, if this was a known problem with this model computer, an out of warranty recall/replacement is the wise course.

  • VoR61

    One lesson I’ve learned before sending computer in for repair – get independent verification! A quick visit to a local PC shop could pay huge dividends as they can say “Yes, I observed the behavior specified by the owner”. Otherwise, once you send it in it’s I-say-they-say.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Highly unlikely

    Raven’s point about sending a prepaid box is valid. Is that normal for out of warranty repairs? Plus, every repair shop I’ve been to informs you of the cost repairs before the repairs begin.

    Additionally, if that were the issue, those “deaf” ears at Dell would have informed Chris of that fact which would have been reported.

  • VoR61

    And verify, verify, verify. Take pictures of the box, the laptop, etc. Proof of what she received (the box with label) and what was sent.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I’m not a Texas attorney, but it’s almost certainly not theft. All crimes (except infractions) require both a mental and physical element. The mental element is lacking her as there is no intent to permanently deprive the owner. This is the tort of conversion.

    Otherwise, if I borrow something from you, lose it, and can’t pay, it would be theft.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I mostly agree. But it’s an industry standard in computer repair shop to specifically disclaims liability for lost software and data. As well as the consequential damages issue.

  • AJPeabody

    The stories don’t matter. They all agree that they have the computer. Send it back, repair it, or replace it. Period.

  • sunshipballoons

    Where are the hysterical people who always want to call the police on these boards? Clearly, Dell stole the computer and the cops should go arrest Michael Dell. Right?

  • Joe_D_Messina

    “By your account, your five-year-old computer was not flaming hot, but warm to the touch. ”

    I’m totally confused by this line. The letter clearly states that not only did the OP burn her fingers but that she sent pictures of her burnt fingers to Dell. Yet, here Chris is saying the OP’s own notes say that never happened. Which is it?

    Dell should honor their word and give her a new computer, but I wonder if the delay was caused in part by conflicting statements like this which made them think the OP was angling for a lawsuit.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I’m totally confused by the contradictory statements between the letter and Chris’ response. The OP very clearly says she burnt her fingers and that she apparently sent along pictures of the burns and a doctor’s note. Yet in his section, Chris says the OP’s own notes said the keyboard was merely warm.

    I wonder if the holdup happened when Dell got wind of the discrepancies and smelled a lawsuit coming? Dell should keep their word and give the OP a new computer, but how can there be any confusion over whether the OP was burned or not? And if there were no injuries, that speaks very badly of the OP.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    That’s the part that really worries me about the OP’s story. She’s talking about sending in pictures of the burns and a doctor’s note while Chris is saying her own notes given to him say it was just warm.

    And by the time your keyboard was hot enough to actually burn you, it would have to be very close to bursting into flames. It’s hard to believe the machine would still be operable after being that hot, yet Chris’ notes seem to suggest it was. And how could Dell say there was no overheating problem if the machine was damaged?

  • Mark Cuban

    “In an effort to apply pressure, you also filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.”

    I laughed so hard I almost cried…..

  • omgstfualready

    Yep. How about this:

    “Also, I think there’s a time to go by the book — and a time to throw out the book. Smoldering keyboards is one such case. Who cares about the warranty? Your fingers were hot.”
    I don’t like the inconsistency.

  • Mark Carrara

    1. A five year old computer is not worthless or obsolete. Not everyone needs the latest and greatest computer. I am the Director of Technology for a school district and the newest computers we have are 4-5 years old.
    2. Whatever happened, whatever the cause, whatever the promises Dell owes her a laptop. Either the one she shipped them, or a replacement. At this point it looks like all she is asking for is her laptop back. If they can’t produce it, then they should give a replacement, not a brand new i7, but a refurbed basic model should work.

  • jim6555

    I wouldn’t consider them a “standup company” until the computer is actually replaced. Until then, all they have done is make an empty promise.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Maybe. I’d need to see the promise and know who made it.

  • pplaresilly

    “A five year old computer is obsolete” Yes, but it is her obsolete computer. Dell is obsolete along with Mcafee antivirus.


    I think a tape of the conversation between the OP and Dell would be very interesting. It is probably the only way to clarify what really took place in the exchange about the overheating computer. And, like a number of commenters, I am perplexed at her burning her fingers and then telling Chris that the computer was only warm. I

  • Nadine Bonner

    I have also had problems with Dell and stopped buying their products years ago. Before all laptops came with internal internet connections, I purchased a device for a Dell laptop through Dell. I spoke to the person on the phone for some time to be certain would work with my daughter’s Dell laptop. I had tried purchasing one at a local store, and it had not proved compatible. I ordered it from Dell, and it did not work. Unfortunately my daughter was at school in another state, and by the time she returned it to me, the piece was three months old. It was still brand-news and unused, but Dell refused to take it back. It was an $89 item, and I had, over the years, purchased several desk top and three laptop computers from them directly. I refused to pay, and they refused to take it back. Finally they put me to collection over the $89, and I tried to dispute it for over a year. Eventually I decided it wasn’t worth ruining my credit rating so I paid them. But I have purchased many more laptops for my kids over the intervening years, but never a Dell products. So rather than accept an $89 item back, they lost thousands in sales. What a bunch of idiots.

  • Alan Gore

    The narrow ventilation orifices in laptops are even more subject to dust clogging than in desktops. Laptops may also be subjected to varying, hasher environments on the road..

  • Cybrsk8r

    My company uses Dell computers and I can tell you, I would never buy one. They look like 4th graders put them together.

  • bodega3

    Our family business sells computers. For years we wouldn’t sell Dell, but many clients go for price so we started handling them, but very reluctantly. Dell isn’t consistent on parts they use from computer to computer. You get what you pay for.

  • JenniferFinger

    I’ve had bad experiences with Dell too. But they promised to do something for the OP, and then chose to do nothing because “of their insurance company.” Insurance or no, they need to act for the OP, not just sit and wait and leave him with nothing, and that’s what they’re doing, including their “all further communication will be through the insurance company” line. They’re just going to sit on their hands forever unless the OP sues.

  • Joe Farrell

    The difference here is where is the OP’s agreement to those terms? where were they disclosed and here we have intent to deprive . . . completely different ballgame. If the lost the computer, given their tracking system specifically designed to prevent that – then I’d claim gross negligence, thereby exempting their contract of adhesion which will cover only ordinary negligence or destruction of data related to repair. . . .

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Intent to deprive? Where?

  • Joe Farrell

    By not sending it back, it rises to the level of intent to deprive. They either lost it or didn’t – its not brain surgery. I presume they have a tracking system in the repair depot. So where is it?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The intent to deprive would have to be shown to arise at the time Dell took possession of the laptop. That’s like prosecuting someone for theft because they didn’t pay back a loan. Without more, your claim isn’t colorable.