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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/23/2008 7:34:38 PM ET 2008-06-23T23:34:38

By now you know that TV is changing next year. Starting Feb. 17, 2009, local TV stations will turn off their analog transmitters and go all digital.

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If you have cable or satellite you don’t need to do anything. But if you have an analog TV and get your signal with an antenna, you’ll need a digital converter box or your TV won’t work. Those converter boxes cost about $60. You can get a $40 coupon from the federal government that lowers your cost to around $20.

But now a company called Universal TechTronics is running ads in newspapers across the country that offer a digital converter box (up to two per family) for free. The headline is a real attention-getter: “Public to get free TV without Gov’t coupon!”

The ad, which is made to look like a newspaper article, says the Miracle ClearView box “allows any ordinary TV a superior quality picture, better sound and free digital network channels – all for free.”

The problem is you can’t get the digital converter box for free, even if you use the “Certified Free Claims Code” listed in the ad. You have to buy a five-year warranty for $59 and pay shipping and handling fees. That brings the total cost of the free converter box to nearly $100!

The Better Business Bureau issued an alert today warning consumers about this offer. “This is a bad deal they are pushing and it’s a bad deal anyway you look at it,” says BBB spokesman Steve Cox.

What are you really getting?
The ad calls the Miracle ClearView an “amazing” new converter box. But based on its investigation, the Bureau says there’s nothing amazing about this unit. It’s the same type of converter box you can buy in retail stores across the country.

The copy in ad says, “No Bills: New ClearView TV receives free channels, no need to pay for cable to get the new digital picture quality and sound.” The BBB believes this wording could mislead customers to believe they will get free cable or satellite programming.

“The bottom line is, these ads confuse and mislead consumers,” Cox says. “They are preying on consumers’ lack of knowledge about digital TV conversion.”

Cox tells me the Better Business Bureau’s national office contacted Universal TechTronic before releasing its consumer alert, but those calls were not returned.

I spoke to John Armstrong, the company’s general counsel, who insists the ad is not misleading. “The ad makes it clear that anyone purchasing the five-year warranty will get a box for free,” he says. Armstrong calls the offer “an alternative” to the government coupon program.

The feds investigate
The Universal TechTronics’ ad says its converter box has been “certified” by the government office handling the distribution of digital converter coupons, the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) in the Department of Commerce.

The ad does not state which converter box is being sold. Armstrong tells me it’s the Philco tb100HHP, which is on the certified list. Todd Sedmak, a spokesman for NTIA, says they are looking into that. He wants people to know that Universal TechTronics “is not participating in the TV converter coupon program.” Sedmak also tells me, “the Federal Trade Commission is investigating” this offer. The FTC will neither confirm nor deny that.

Universal TechTronics, located in Canton, Ohio, also does business under the name Heat Surge, LLC. The company also uses the free giveaway pitch to sell other household goods including The Roll-n-Glow Amish Fireplace.

In the last nine months, the Better Business Bureau has received nearly 200 complaints about Universal TechTronics. The complaints include slow delivery or no delivery, poor product quality, poor customer service, delays in getting refunds and questionable advertising claims. Because of this pattern of complaints, the company has an unsatisfactory record with the BBB.

Digital conversion: The facts
It’s estimated that about one-third of all U.S. households have at least one TV that won’t work after the switch to digital. Unless they are hooked up to cable, satellite or a digital converter box, they’ll be useless starting February 17th.

Steve Cox with the BBB says he expects to see “many more efforts over the coming months to mislead or just outright scam consumers over the digital TV conversion.”

For legitimate information about digital TB conversion, call the DTV hotline at 888-DTV-2009 or visit: www.dtv2009.gov/FAQ.aspx.

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