It's not the fine print you have to worry about with rebates being offered by Dell Computer Corp. It's the seeming lack of any print at all.
Several consumers have charged that the company, based in Round Rock, Texas, aggressively uses rebates during the sales process, but neglects to mention that there is a very tight deadline for taking advantage of the money-back offer.
Kathleen Griffin of Cambridge, Mass., said she bought a nearly $1,400 computer in November, in part because of $200 in rebates Dell was offering. But in early January, when she downloaded rebate forms from the Dell Web site, she read for the first time that she had to file the rebate form within 30 days of the computer shipping date. The deadline had already passed.
"How was I supposed to know I had only 30 days?" Griffin asked. She said the person who sold her the computer over the phone did not mention it. Nor was it on the Web order confirmation or on the packing slip or other materials that came with the computer. It was only on the rebate form itself.
Andy Roehr of Salem, N.H., had the same problem. He missed the deadline for his $220 rebate because his salesperson never told him about it. He assumed the rebate check would just arrive in the mail. "Their approach does wonders for their bottom line, but I don't think it's ethical," Roehr said.
Both Griffin and Roehr complained about the lack of notice, but Dell officials refused to budge. Only after the Globe made inquiries did a Dell spokesman agree to look into each case. Griffin said Dell contacted her almost immediately, saying her rebate check would be mailed shortly.
Venancio Figueroa, the Dell spokesman, said hundreds of thousands of rebates have been paid out in a timely fashion. "It's our intent to really make it easy," he said, noting that the rebate time frame is available on the company's Web site and in television ads, and it is supposed to be disclosed at the time of sale by customer service representatives.
The slowing economy has made rebates a popular and effective sales tool for corporations, but for consumers the collection process has become a confusing, and sometimes grueling, ordeal.
The terms of some rebate offers are nearly impossible to meet and are often explained only in the fine print. Many companies farm out their rebate operations to third parties, making it even more difficult for customers to find out what's happened to their money.
Jerry Kamitian of Salem, N.H., takes advantage of a lot of rebate offers and says he often has to badger the company to come through with what it promised. For example, a $10 rebate for a wireless phone charger he purchased from CompUSA was supposed to arrive in six to eight weeks. But it ended up taking nearly six months and several phone calls to get his money.
"I get the feeling that they wait to see if customers call before they actually cut the checks," Kamitian said. "It just seems very suspicious."
Frank Giordano, president of TCA Fulfillment Services in New Rochelle, N.Y., the company that processes rebates for CompUSA, said there is no conspiracy to withhold rebates. He said the number of consumers redeeming rebates in the electronics area, where TCA specializes, has increased from between 40 and 50 percent of buyers three years ago to nearly 85 percent today.
Giordano declined to discuss Kamitian's situation, but he said delays are often caused when consumers fail to provide necessary information. "Typically, the customer does something wrong," he said.
But Kamitian said there was nothing wrong with his filing. And complaints about TCA are on the rise. The Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan New York said it received 122 complaints about TCA in the past 12 months. In the previous two years, it had received 123 complaints. The bureau has given TCA an unsatisfactory rating.
For any consumer interested in collecting a rebate, it pays to closely read the fine print and find out all the terms and conditions before buying the product. Sometimes the terms are so onerous that the rebate offer becomes worthless.