Advice on Rebates and Refunds

January 03, 2012

What do rebate and refund policies have in common, particularly this time of year? They're a source of confusion and aggravation for consumers who didn't fully understand them when making a purchase.

An editor at Consumer Reports estimated that 40 percent or more of people who are enticed to buy a product by the offer of a rebate never get it because they fail to meet processing requirements. Others simply forget to file for the rebate.

We offer the following advice for making a purchase that includes a rebate:

• Read the instructions carefully. Some rebates require many steps. If you miss any of those requirements, it could delay the process or cause you to lose the rebate altogether.

• Pay particular attention to timelines. Many offers are only good for a limited time. If you set the paperwork aside with the intention of completing it later, you may be too late when you get around to it.

• Save all the packaging from the product until after you get your rebate. Rebates often require you to include part of the packaging, like the UPC code.

• Make a copy of all the information you're sending, including the rebate form, receipts and the UPC code on the box or other packaging.

• Consider sending it by certified mail so that you'll have proof of delivery.

• If you don't receive your rebate within the time promised, call the manufacturer. Sometimes retailers and manufacturers use a third party company to process the paperwork. Many major retailers have staff on hand to assist with problems.

• Federal law requires companies to send rebates within the time frame promised. If no time is specified, they should be sent within a "reasonable" time, which the Federal Trade Commission interprets as 30 days. If you don't get your rebate, file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, your state consumer affairs office or the Federal Trade Commission.

Confusion about store refund and exchange policies generates many complaints to the BBB. A fellow bought a $1,500 ring as a surprise anniversary present for his wife. After getting it sized and taking it home, he decided it really wasn't what he wanted. The store refused to refund his money, citing their policy of not issuing refunds for jewelry that's been sized. He said he wasn't told that; they said he was. He should have asked. The policy was posted in the store.

A store is required to take merchandise back if it's defective or was misrepresented. Otherwise, offering refunds or exchanges is voluntary on the part of the store. Health regulations may prohibit the return of items such as hats, bathing suits and other intimate apparel. If the product has a warranty, you may be required to return it to the manufacturer if it's defective.

We offer the following advice regarding refund policies:

• Be sure you know the store's return policy before buying the item. Does it allow a full refund, an exchange or a store credit? Policies may differ for sale and clearance items.

• Find out if there are any restocking fees.

• If there's a warranty, understand what it requires you to do if the merchandise is defective.

• Understand what time period is allowed for returning an item.

• Save your receipt and the packaging that the item was wrapped in until you're sure it won't be returned.