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My customer-service nightmare shows cost of living, working in Brazil

Lightning bolts strike through the sky near Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro in January.

Renata Brito/AP

The small-claims court of Rio de Janeiro is a hushed, gleaming expanse of blond wood and white tile, air conditioned to an icy chill. Cases are swiftly dispatched.

I know this because I have spent a lot of time there in my first 15 months living in Brazil – ample time to reflect on the irony of the court's efficiency, given the kinds of reasons why people typically end up in its small courtrooms.

I am suing Ponto Frio, Brazil's largest appliance and electronics company – sort of the Best Buy of Brazil. Or rather, months ago, I won a lawsuit against Ponto Frio. But alas, I remain a regular at the court, because Ponto Frio is refusing to pay up. They're now in contempt of court and face fines. I do not have the sense they are too concerned. I, meanwhile, must return to court, to pursue another process, to try to make them pay.

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The story of how Ponto Frio sold me an air conditioner, delivered the wrong one, refused to take it back, refused to refund me, then claimed to refund me but didn't pay – it's long and tedious and even the judge who read my pages-long statement of claim could not quite stifle a groan when she read it – and one assumes she sees this kind of thing a lot. I will spare you, reader.

But the larger story of my customer-service odyssey is a cautionary tale for outsiders who are drawn to try to live or work or invest in a Brazil that is supposed to be changing.

Ponto Frio, I began to think, was a metaphor: The chain's stores are well-organized and shiny, full of gleaming appliances and gadgets, the kind snapped up over the last 12 years by Brazil's new middle class in a consumer frenzy that was a major spur for economic growth. There's a Ponto Frio in every neighbourhood in this city, each of them full of staff in crisp red shirts, and there's an easy-to-use website that delivers swiftly, as well.

When I set up a new Globe Rio bureau last July, I set out to make a one-stop shopping trip for everything from fridge to printer as I have previously for bureaus in South Africa and India. Ponto Frio was the obvious destination, and I arrived in one of their huge mall showrooms ready to buy 20 large items as fast as they would let me. Giving them my money was easy enough – and then it all went the hell off the rails.

When I finally gave up after literally hundreds of hours on the phone with customer "service" and went to court, the company showed even less functionality. And that is Brazil today: veneer of shiny new functionality, same stodgy bureaucracy underneath.

Because it's not just this company. Some version of this drama has played out in every interaction I have had with a major Brazilian company or Brazilian branch of a multinational.

Take banks: This past week, in a victory that had us literally whooping in jubilation, I managed to set up a functional bank account. Yep, 15 months in.

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When I landed in Brazil, I went first to HSBC, which has a reputation for facilitating the needs of people who bank across borders. They point-blank refused to give me an account because I did not have a Brazilian employer – even though I was standing there with thousands of dollars to deposit and my Globe contract in hand.

Citibank, after seven visits, gave me an account. Fifteen months later, they have yet to provide me with a credit card, or my partner with an ATM card, despite having made us do 30-plus pages of paperwork five separate times. They lost all the previous versions, the manager admitted with a shrug, the last time we started over.

Every time I receive a wire transfer from the Globe, it has to be approved by Brazil's Central Bank, and I have to submit a ream of paperwork to prove its origin. The paperwork that worked last time won't work the next. It takes days and days to get someone at the bank to acknowledge my request for processing, days more actually to have the money released – I've nearly worn a path into the sidewalk between my apartment and the bank.

When I confronted the branch manager about this a couple months ago, she acknowledged, vaguely, that 15 months was a long time for a "premium" customer to wait for a bank card. Since then, she has not replied to calls or e-mails. I eventually wrote to Citibank's senior manager for Latin America. He never replied.

The story is similar with my cellphone company, Oi. It took them just 20 minutes to sell me a phone and set up the line. I left the shop beaming, on my second day in Brazil. And it's been straight downhill from there.

They have made an error, to the tune of about $500, on each of my last five bills. Again, it takes dozens and dozens of phone calls to have it corrected each month. In total despair, I went out this week to try to change providers. In the (very shiny) store of Claro, which is number two by market share, I sat in a chair for 27 minutes while a "relationship manager" phoned people to find the answer to my very first question, what their long-distance roaming rates are. It quickly became clear that there was no better life to be had in the world of Claro.

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Brazilians, for the most part, take this stuff as just part of life. Those who have lived abroad have some sense that it is not like this everywhere. In the Claro store, as in every other retail establishment, the "rights" of the consumer were posted prominently on the wall.

Brazilians make regular use of these complaint channels and the small-claims court, and those systems generally work – if your cellphone company tries to bilk you of $500 in erroneous charges, you won't have to pay. But it may nearly kill you to get to that point. And the cost, in lost hours and in staffing of countless redress mechanisms that should not be necessary, defies calculation.

For me, the one saving grace has been that it's all been instructive, in terms of understanding the Brazilian economy and why some market analysts are so down on the place – and fine opportunities to practice my Portuguese. On my last trip to court, I met a nice rabbi, on his seventh visit relating to a faulty refrigerator. And it was bleakly comforting to know that even having God on your side is no help with Ponto Frio.

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