Make tech rebates work for you, not against you

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

Rebate scams can make getting a promised discount on products much more difficult — and much less reliable — than it might seem at first glance.

But if you do your homework and take a few precautions, you can minimize the risk and maximize the discounts.

In my Dec. 3 Insider Tricks column (paid content), I identified rebate rip-offs as a top offender in tech vendors’ bags of dirty tricks. These scams are designed to squeeze more money out of customers without giving them anything in return.

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Not all rebate offers are scams, of course. There are good, money-saving deals out there, and it’s unrealistic and unfair to condemn all rebates based on the shady practices of some vendors.

But there’s always at least some risk when you choose a product based on the promise of a future rebate. Here are some tips for ensuring that you come out a winner in the rebate game.

Do research before making your purchase

Before you let a rebate offer lure you into buying that shiny, new whatever-it-is, make sure the deal is truly as good as it appears:

Is there a cheaper, no-rebate alternative?

Rebates aren’t the only way to get discounts on products. Sales, coupons, and other strategies save money as well. For example, Symantec’s holiday gift page features steep discounts on popular Norton products. Some require the typical mail-in rebate hassle, but others are no-muss, no-fuss money-savers.

For security products in particular, add up the total cost of ownership before you buy. It may be cheaper to purchase a new, on-sale security product every year rather than buy it once and pay full annual charges for product and virus-definition updates.

What’s the company’s rebate track record?

There’s no infallible way to track vendor rebate performance, but some Web sites can help with anecdotal evidence. For example, Rebate Report Card scores companies on their rebate-redemption record, based on voluntary reports from consumers. For a quick glance at the most-recent corporate grades, check out the site’s best and worst page.

A similar site is RipoffReport, where you can search for complaints lodged against specific companies.

You also can search the Web for negative comments about a company and product. If there have been a large number of customer complaints, chances are good they’ll pop up in search results.

Determine whether the company’s site offers a way to track your rebate claim. For example, when I searched for rebates on Staples.com, I was taken to the Staples Rebate Center, which includes links for tracking rebates and checking your rebate-card balance.

Have you followed the rebate rules exactly?

If you decide a rebate is worth the risk and hassle, make sure your approach is letter-perfect:
  • Step 1. Read all instructions and fine print. Note especially any language that limits your rights or the company’s liability.
  • Step 2. Complete all the steps of the rebate-redemption process exactly as directed.
  • Step 3. Keep copies of everything you mail to the company.
  • Step 4. Send the required redemption documents by certified mail and request a return receipt.
If your rebate doesn’t arrive in a reasonable amount of time or within the time frame promised in the rebate offer’s fine print, you may need to resubmit copies of the required information to force a response from the company.

Prepare to go 15 rounds to collect your rebate

Don’t count on the rebate-redemption center you’re dealing with to make things simple — or quick.

Are you in it for the long haul?

If you have problems getting your rebate, be ready to spend the time required to redeem your claim. That includes contacting the vendor’s customer service department and resubmitting copies of your rebate application. Rebate scammers often depend on their ability to outlast their victims, who simply grow weary of the process and give up.

Are you willing to report any suspected wrongdoing?

There are a number of ways to lodge a complaint against a recalcitrant rebate-redemption service. One dissatisfied customer — who identifies himself as TheDealMaker — has posted an extensive list of links and resources where you can do just that. Check out his May 16, 2004 post on FatWallet.com.

Getting companies to deliver on their rebate offers can sometimes be difficult, but by wielding this arsenal of resources and techniques, you can substantially improve your chances of getting the money you’ve been promised.

Have more info on this subject? Post your tip in the WS Columns forum.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and occasionally writes for the Here’s How section of that magazine.
= Paid content

All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2010-01-07: