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Coping with mail-in rebate hassle

The Baltimore Sun

You are put off, put out and, for the most part, thoroughly disgusted. Some of you fight back. And a few - I hand it to you - seem to have licked the system and offer smart tips.

I'm talking about the labyrinth of mail-in rebates - the often mind-numbing chore of finding, cutting out, putting together and mailing the required universal product codes, proofs of purchase and sales receipts, then waiting weeks, if not months, for rebate checks to start trickling in.

And that's without having to deal with companies that say you did not send a form you did submit.

I wrote recently about my own rebate hassles on a computer purchase. In response, I've received upward of 200 e-mail messages from readers.

From these - more than on any other subject in years - I've gleaned the following observations and suggestions:

Put a value on your time.

"I just got the last two of five rebates," one reader wrote. "I had to make three trips back to the computer store, use loads of my own ink to copy everything, waste about a day on useless phone calls, and, in general, experience so much frustration I almost threw the printer out. Never again!"

My recommendation: Determine whether you're being "paid" enough for the time spent to claim the rebate.

Calculate your true savings.

From the advertised rebate amount, subtract the costs you incur for postage, envelopes, printing and copying. And don't forget sales tax.

"One of the worst things about rebates is that you have to pay sales tax on money not actually spent on the product," a reader wrote. The tax is typically levied on the full purchase price.

Know the rules.

"I've been notified several times that an original UPC was not included with my submission," a reader wrote. "But this was not one of the terms." This reader, who knew that the rules required only a copy, had the rebates validated over the phone.

Ask about the store policy on receipts before you part with originals.

"I bought a cookware set, which included a mail-in rebate for $20," a reader wrote. "One stipulation was to include the original receipt. I did get the rebate, but then two of the pots' handles cracked. You guessed it. I couldn't return the set because I didn't have the original receipt."

If you must submit the original of anything, obtain written confirmation of when and to whom you sent it, and keep a copy.

Several readers told me that, thanks to their documentation, they received rebates denied at first.

Complain all the way up.

"I didn't know whom to turn to after my rebate request was rejected and the representative at the toll-free number could give me only scripted answers," a reader wrote.

"I went directly to the retailer that sold me the product. The situation was resolved, but I still had lingering feelings so I went on to make a complaint to my state attorney general's office."

Well done. If you are getting the runaround on rebates, the Federal Trade Commission recommends you complain to the state attorney general's office, local Better Business Bureau or the FTC.

For more information on consumer issues, go to the FTC Web site or call toll-free, 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357).

Humberto Cruz writes for Tribune Media Services.

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