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Monday, May 03, 2004  

Consumers: Where's my rebate?

Having scored some spiffy and expensive new tech gear for Christmas and my birthday, I'm beginning to wonder: 'Where's my rebate?' Among the items I'm due a reduction in price paid on is the Palm Tungsten C wireless personal digital assistant pictured. A rough calculation says I'm owed about $350 if the companies offering the rebates honor their promises.

However, being a consumer who has been around for a while, I know that I may never see a penny. CBS 2 has looked into the world of rebates.

Each year Americans are bombarded with 50 billion rebate offers on everything from coffee machines to personal PC’s. The Federal Trade Commission says many companies use excessive paperwork and slow processing to discourage redemption’s, and it's effective, only 10 percent of consumers actually apply for their rebates.

“There is a deliberate effort to trick consumers,” says the FTC’s Barbara Anthony.

At Christmas CBS 2 randomly bought four products offering mail in rebates, a Fellowes Home/Office Power Adapter, a pack of TKD CD’s, a Schick razor and a Windmere Coffee Maker. We sent the forms in, and according to the manufacturers we would receive our money within six to eight weeks. But as you'll see, there's a big difference between getting a rebate offer and getting a check in the mail.

“Nobody gives you anything for nothing and in some cases you really need to be careful with these rebates,” adds Anthony.

My custom is to skip small rebate offers, but pursue those worth ten dollars or more. Two of the currently delayed rebate checks are for $100 each. My calls and emails to 'Where's My Rebate?,' an online clearinghouse, and manufacturers, resulted in 'getting paid' for most of 2003's dubious promises. I've yet to open the mailbox and say 'yeah' to any of the rebates I've applied for in 2004. That isn't surprising. It took nearly a year to be compensated via rebate for buying a new VCR/DVD player last year.

The most egregious promise breaker this year is Palm. It owes me $200 in rebates.

Most manufacturers get away with their delay or no pay practices because consumers give up. But, occassionally, a big corporate fly gets swatted.

Harry Nobel says he was more than careful, he was meticulous about filling out and mailing in the $40 rebate forms for his Philips CD drive to be refunded in 8 weeks, “I had to send the UPC, I had to send the cash register receipt and I had to send the form.”

But when the time was up and no check arrived in the mail Nobel says the manufacturer gave him the rebate runaround, “They said 4 to 6 weeks, 4 to 6 weeks were up and they said that again another 4 to 6 weeks, they reset the clock.”

Nobel was in good company, an investigation by the FTC found some 50,000 Philips Electronics customers ran into the same rebate roadblock in 2001, they couldn't collect because of what the FTC called "unfair or deceptive acts or practices."

However, such a response is much too rare. Both federal and state consumer agencies do little about the deceptive trade practices associated with rebates.

Some consumers have become fed up. They would rather have a manufacturer acknowledge the true cost of its product than lead them on. I agree. I might have bought the same VCR/DVD player it took months to get a rebate for at exactly the same price. But, by offering the rebate and then trying to renege on the offer, the manufacturer left a customer disgruntled. In legal terms, promisers of rebates create an expectation interest. Then, manufacturers dash that interest more often than not. The problem with such behavior is that people rely on the promises made. They think of that new cell phone or PDA as having cost the price with the rebate deducted, when, in fact, they paid significantly more for it. The check that doesn't come represents another product not purchased or a bill not paid with those funds. Consumers who have had enough are encouraging the government to put an end to rebate rip-offs, by putting an end to rebates. You can learn more about the movement at stopmailinrebates.com.

CBS 2 has received two of its rebates and is still waiting for the others. Nobel got his rebate when the FTC strong-armed Philips. I expect to eventually recoup maybe half of what I'm owed in rebates -- after phoning and emailing complaints.

Reasonably related

•Who decides whether you get a rebate? Warning: you will not be pleased.

•The problem with 1967 or 'how old is your firewall?'

9:00 PM