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Win the Rebate RunaroundJan Garkey
Paul Richard is a firm believer in rebates. He takes time to read and fill out paperwork. In January 2004, Richard had four outstanding rebate requests. How does he keep track of requests? "I maintain a calendar," he says. "I make a note about how much is due and when I made the request, and I keep this little tickler file." If the request is sizable--say $50 or more--he insures his request to easily track whether it was delivered.
Richard, executive director of the San Diego-based Institute of Consumer Financial Education, is in the minority. According to Peter Kastner, executive vice president of Aberdeen Group, a Boston-based market-research firm, only 40% of consumers submit rebates they are entitled to, 40% submit the rebate and successfully get a check, and 20% have problems. Do manufacturers hope consumers will forget about redeeming the rebate? "Absolutely," says Richard. "A lot of people do forget about it."
Lengthy delays frustrate consumers
Forgetting to redeem rebates is one issue, but delays for those who make the effort to jump through the hoops--cutting out bar codes, filling out forms, including the serial number, attaching receipts, and mailing the paperwork to the correct address--concerns Michael Ostheimer, seniors staff attorney at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Washington, D.C.
Consumers, it seems, are getting the runaround. Ostheimer cites a case involving Philips Electronics North America Corporation (Philips), New York. More than 50,000 consumers experienced delays of up to six months or more between January 2001 and January 2002, despite company claims that consumers would get rebates of between $20 and $100 within eight weeks. A large number of consumer complaints prompted the FTC to get involved and compel Philips to pay all shoppers with valid claims within 10 days.
They're hoping you won't bother
Manufacturers' rebates are offered on a wide range of products, from toothpaste and diapers to furnaces and expensive high-tech gadgets. For many people, the cash rebate is a boost to spending power. For others, the hassles aren't worth the effort.
The FTC recently brought a case involving a company that had undisclosed terms for the rebate. "The rebate application form had a space for an e-mail address or facsimile number," according to Ostheimer, "but it was not made clear that consumers had to fill in that information. The company then rejected rebates when the application was sent in by the consumer without any e-mail address."
On the surface, promises of rebates sound like a consumer-friendly gesture by retailers. The promotions are enticing, but consumers oftentimes are left holding the bag, in this case a worthless receipt--if they remembered to keep it. Richard admits that he's had to go out to the trash more than once to retrieve a box with a UPC (Universal Product Code) on it.
Complicated process means lost rebates
The system is full of paperwork that frequently, somewhere along the way, gets fouled up. Perhaps the consumer doesn't follow complicated directions on the rebate form, loses the form, throws away the UPC, or just can't be bothered by all the requirements. Nobody likes the paperwork, and retailers don't like being blamed when a manufacturer's rebate goes sour. But rebates do attract customers. Some stores offer "instant rebates" so customers don't have to mess with rebate forms or wait for the check to be mailed.
Ostheimer emphasizes that consumers need to know what to do before they purchase something. "They should make sure they understand the terms and limitations, such as when to send it in by. If they buy something on Jan. 29, and the rebate expires on Jan. 31, they should know that the offer expires."
Avoid rebate roadblocks
Rebating is a popular money-saving strategy--when it works. Richard recently submitted a rebate for an Epson printer. The company notified him by e-mail that it had received the request, and it notified him when the check was mailed out. "This is a great service," he said, "because it caused me to look in the mailbox and, sure enough, the next day after the e-mail, there was the rebate check." Some rebate checks, however, look like junk mail and are mistakenly thrown away.
Consider shopping where the rebating is easy. Some retailers let you begin the process online so you'll get the rebate quickly. Staples has an online rebate center that lets customers find the right forms, file them, and even track rebates. Other retailers--including Best Buy, Costco, and Lowe's--automatically provide the buyer of a rebate-related item with an extra copy of the receipt and a copy of the required form at checkout.
Richard believes the number of people who submit rebates is probably very close to the number of people who take advantage of coupons. "They're out there for everyone. Last year I had over $1,500 in [coupon] savings. Some people don't take advantage of it and say they're too busy or something. I've never been too busy to clip $15 in savings in 15 minutes because that's $60 an hour."
Improve your odds of receiving a rebate
Consider these tips from the FTC and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection:
- Read the fine print. Check the rebate expiration date. Purchase the item within the time frame to be eligible for the rebate. Some rules require that you circle the product on the receipt, some require original documentation, and others require a serial number instead of the UPC.
"I've never been too busy to clip $15 in coupon savings in 15 minutes...that's $60 an hour."
- Before you leave the store, check the UPC on the box. If the store sells returned merchandise, the UPC already may have been used for a rebate, voiding your request.
- Check bulletin boards for rebate forms. Auto parts stores, for example, may post rebate slips on store boards for a few dollars off a case of oil.
- Test the product. Before you mail the rebate, make sure the product works.
- Fill out the form completely. If you don't dot the i's and cross the t's, or if you miss the mailing deadline, it's instant rejection.
- Keep copies of everything you send. Know whom to contact--which should be on the rebate form--if your rebate is lost or rejected.
- Staple or paper clip items together. Some rebates are rejected because the UPC gets stuck in the envelope.
- Send large rebates ($50 or more) by certified mail. Keep a copy of the certified receipt to prove you mailed the rebate.
- Keep good records. Mark on the calendar when you mailed the rebate form and when you expect to receive the check so you don't mistakenly discard the rebate as junk mail.
Don't be afraid to complainIf you don't receive your rebate within the specified time, look on your copy of the rebate form for contact information. If your complaint is not handled satisfactorily, file a complaint with at least one of the following: