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THE CUTTING EDGE

Buyers Howl as Computer Maker Signs Off, Vanishes

Search: Angry customers use the Net, the courts and agencies in attempt to track down founder of Nimantics.

June 08, 1998|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A once-promising Irvine computer maker has shut down and dozens of angry customers, stuck with broken equipment, are flooding agencies, courts and the Internet with complaints.

Nimantics Inc. unexpectedly closed its doors earlier this year. Federal postal officials are investigating numerous customer complaints of possible mail fraud.

Dozens of tech-savvy customers--claiming they received defective merchandise or paid for computers that never arrived--are turning to the World Wide Web to find help.

"We want our money back and we won't stop looking for [founder Nimesh Desai] until we get it," said one poster on a local electronic bulletin board.

Neither Desai nor other Nimantics employees could be reached for comment.

The tale of the now-defunct Nimantics and its strange closure began two years ago when Desai, then 25, began selling high-end laptops by mail order.

At last fall's Comdex computer conference in Las Vegas, the company showed its Persona sub-notebook and declared that it would become the computer world's next star. The high-tech trade press lauded the machine as a "road warrior's dream," a Pentium PC laptop that weighed a mere 2.2 pounds and was no bigger than a hardcover book.

"I have a very deep understanding of electronics and can identify long-term technological developments and see how they're going to translate into new products," Desai told Inc. magazine in its August 1997 issue. "I think I'm smarter than [Dell Computer Corp. founder] Michael Dell."

At the show, Desai informed reporters that his privately held company was pulling in $3.6 million in annual sales and $180,000 in operating profit.

The buzz around town--and on the Net--was strong. People said they contacted the company to buy notebooks, ranging in price from $2,400 to nearly $6,000.

Then Nimantics closed its doors. City officials say Nimantics still has a valid Irvine business license, but the company's phone has been disconnected and its Web site is inaccessible.

"They went 'poof' into thin air, and so did my $6,000 computer," said Bill Burke of Dallas.

The 45-year-old database consultant had bought two Nimantics notebooks in 1996. When one of them broke down in December, Burke said he called the company and was told by a customer service employee to mail the machine back to Nimantics. When he tried to contact the Irvine office later to inquire how the repairs were going, Burke said he discovered that Nimantics' phone had been disconnected. Burke said he has not seen his laptop since.

According to the California Better Business Bureau, Desai started a new company called ASND in Tustin. Like Nimantics, ASND is a mail-order computer sales and service business.

But the phones for ASND's offices also have been disconnected, according to a telephone recording.

ASND lists its business address as an executive suite in a small office complex at 14081 Yorba St. in Tustin, according to the Better Business Bureau. The building's management staff said ASND rented the space for six weeks earlier this year, but that Desai stopped paying rent and had moved out several months ago. The office receptionist said she has received many inquiries about Desai and is referring calls to the Tustin Police Department.

A second business address listed for ASND turned out to be a post office box at the Postal Annex shop in the Tustin Market Place. The staff at the store declined to comment.

Over the last nine months, several lawsuits have been filed against Nimantics and Desai in Santa Ana Superior Court. The cases range from a claim by publishing firm CurtCo Freedom Group that Desai owes nearly $128,000 in unpaid advertising bills to allegations by Northern California construction contractor Emerex Inc. that Nimantics failed to honor its warranty.

Even Nimantics' own attorney wants to talk to Desai about a late bill, according to court records. In March, the court allowed attorney Troy Tate to withdraw as the computer firm's legal counsel because "the client has disappeared" and has not fully paid for services, according to court records.

On the Web, disgruntled customers swap information on several sites. One hot spot is a forum on the Tustin Police Department's site, where laptop owners discuss the latest news. They share tales of broken equipment, updates on lawsuits and rumors about places where Desai has allegedly been spotted.

Customers say that since Desai previously used the Net to promote Nimantics machines, they hope he will be discovered trying to launch another online venture. If he does, customers say they hope to trace his whereabouts so they can try to recoup their losses.

Angry customers have also sought help from state and local agencies. The California Better Business Bureau has received 20 complaints against the firm. The organization's reliability report on Nimantics notes that "many of the complaints involved computers costing several thousand dollars."

The state attorney general's office has received "a few" inquiries about defective merchandise, customers' inability to contact Desai and failure of Nimantics staff to issue refunds, a spokesman said.

Tustin police have fielded numerous calls, as has the Irvine Police Department, officials say.

Both agencies are referring inquiries and complaints to the Southern California division of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which is looking into claims of mail fraud. Officials declined further comment on the matter.

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