How much compensation does a consumer deserve for the loss of a laptop computer loaded with personal information? Raelyn Campbell figures it's $54 million -- if you throw in a little extra for lost time and frustration.
Six months after bringing a damaged laptop computer into a Best Buy electronics store for repairs, and three months after the firm admitted losing it, Campbell filed the whopper of a lawsuit recently in Washington, D.C., Superior Court.
Best Buy has told Campbell that her demands are unreasonable, and has tried to settle for far less. But Campbell said she didn't start out making astronomical demands. Months of stalling and brush-offs by the company led her to the drastic measures, she said.
Best Buy spokeswoman Nissa French said the company couldn't comment on Campbell's story, citing the ongoing litigation. A lawyer for Best Buy did not return phone calls or e-mails.
When Campbell bought her new laptop in 2006 at a Best Buy store near her D.C. home, she said a clerk talked her into paying $300 for an extended warranty. She thought that was a fortunate choice when the computer's on/off switch broke about a year later.
In May, she brought the computer back to the store and was told repairs would take two to six weeks. That wasn't terribly convenient for Campbell, who works for a nonprofit Asia research firm and travels frequently overseas.
But six weeks turned out to be a wildly optimistic estimate.
By late August, when she returned from a trip to Asia, she still had heard nothing from the company and started to get anxious. Her Aug. 24 complaint letter to the firm was filled with exasperation.
"On July 11, I contacted the (store's) helpline and was instructed by 'Agent David Goodfellow' that it would be 'ready within days,'" she wrote to the firm in a letter dated Aug. 24. "I called the service line again on July 19, and was told by a female agent that the computer appeared to be at the 'Louisville Services Center since July 4.' On July 25, I called again and spoke to Brenda, who transferred me to Daniel. Daniel confirmed that a 'part had just been ordered. It should leave Louisville soon.' …When I heard nothing further, I called yet again on Aug. 7 and spoke with Ashley. When she could not confirm any additional information, I asked to speak to a manager. I was told the manager, 'Marsha,' was in a meeting. I asked her to call ASAP. My call was not returned, so I called again on Aug. 9. I explained the whole situation yet again to 'Cicero,' who indicated that there seemed to be a problem."
The problem was severe: "It never appears to have left the store," she recounted Cicero as telling her. A few days later, he called back and admitted that the computer had been lost. The way she sees it, the other company clerks had been lying to her all along.
Cicero was considerate, Campbell said, and told her she would be compensated. But two weeks passed, and she hadn't heard anything from the company.
After several more weeks of fruitless phone calls, she received an offer she calls insulting: $900 for her trouble -- in the form of a store gift card. Her blood boiled. She had paid more than $1,100 for the computer and the warranty. And she'd also lost thousands dollars worth of music and thousands of irreplaceable photos.
"It wouldn't even cover the cost of replacing the computer, let alone the software, or my time," she said of the gift card offer. "And why would I want to go spend money at their store again after the way I was treated?"
Campbell rejected the offer, instead demanding $2,100 in cash. She said her request went unanswered. In October, she urged family and friends to write to the store saying they wouldn't shop there until the matter was resolved. To her surprise, the store's general manager, Robert Delissio, replied to two of them.
"For every customer that has had an unpleasant experience I can show you hundreds who have had a great experience. I have been in retail for a long time and the one conclusion I have come to is that not every customer can be satisfied," he wrote in an e-mail supplied by Campbell. "Does my store have opportunities? Absolutely! What I can say is that we strive to deliver the experience that every customer deserves to receive."
Delissio didn't respond to requests from msnbc.com to discuss the situation; Best Buy wouldn't comment on the authenticity of the note.
Her frustration mounting, Campbell contacted the Washington, D.C., attorney general's office, which in turn contacted the store. In November, the store increased its compensation offer, this time offering a $1,100 refund to her credit card and a $500 gift card.
A bigger problem: ID theft
At the same time, she visited a legal aid office and was asked by a lawyer there whether she had any personal information on the computer?
"Of course I did," she replied. "My tax returns were on there."
Campbell was informed that she had a bigger problem than a lost computer – the potential for identity theft. She also learned that Best Buy was in violation of the district's security breach notification law, which requires companies that have lost a consumer's data to tell them. To date, she has not received that notification.
Campbell immediately enrolled in a $10-a-month identity theft monitoring service.
She also had reached the limit of her patience. In November, she filed her $54 million lawsuit against Best Buy -- by herself, without legal representation.
The amount intentionally echoes another lawsuit that made headlines last year -- a case involving a D.C. judge who sued a dry cleaner for $54 million over a lost pair of pants. That case was eventually dismissed.
Campbell freely admits she picked the same amount in an effort to attract media attention.
The lawsuit apparently got company's attention, too. On Dec. 20, it offered $2,500 -- in addition to the refund and the gift card -- if she would withdraw her lawsuit and sign a confidentiality agreement.
But that's not enough, Campbell said, because she has yet to hear any explanation for the lost computer.
"It shouldn't take a $54 million lawsuit to motivate Best Buy to address these issues," she said. Her initial offer to settle for $2,100 has been withdrawn because her expenses have risen, including time spent filing a police report and consulting with lawyers about her case, she said. Concerns about identity theft also add to her potential damages, she said.
Wants an explanation
While Campbell has no expectation she will win a multimillion-dollar judgment, she feels she is entitled to damages related to store negligence and an "explanation as to how my computer could have been stolen from a secure area" of the store.
She also wants a promise from the company that it will train employees on privacy issues and on procedures for preventing loss or theft of returned items.
"I can't help but wonder how many other people have had their computer stolen (or) lost by Best Buy and then been bullied into accepting lowball compensation offers for replacement expenses and no compensation for identity theft protection expenses," she said.
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