How to avoid the rebate runaround

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If you buy a product with a rebate, here are some ways to make sure you get what you deserve.

Read the fine print. Before you buy something with a significant rebate, read the form carefully to make sure you can qualify. For instance, when Jim Thomas of Detroit was moving to a new home, he bought a GE refrigerator with a $200 rebate. The retailer held the refrigerator in storage for him for nearly a month until he closed on his new house. By the time the refrigerator was delivered, the rebate period had expired and Thomas was unable to collect it. If he had read the provisions first, he might have been able to figure a way to work around them.

Go where the rebating is easy. Shop at retailers who let you start the process online. That way you’ll probably get the rebate more quickly, says Joan M. Vander Valk of Cranford, N.J., who says she’s never had an unhappy rebate experience. She’s a fan of Staples, whose online rebate center allows customers to find the right forms, file them and even track rebates. Several big retailers, including Best Buy, Costco and Lowe’s, automatically provide the buyer of a rebate-related item an extra copy of the receipt and a copy of the required form at checkout.

Dot the I’s and cross the T’s. Fail to fill out the form completely and your rebate will be kicked to the curb. Even if the information requested seems redundant, provide it. And missing the mailing deadline is deadly.

Make sure you have the right UPC code. A UPC bar code identifies the product uniquely. Some boxes have more than one bar code. If you’re in doubt about which is correct, call the customer service number on the form and ask.

Usually, the UPC code has to be the original one cut from the box. This prevents you from collecting the rebate and then returning the product. In some cases, when there are multiple rebates available, copying the UPC is allowed. But consumers may find the UPC code is designed so it can’t be photocopied. The best way around this is to take a digital photo of the UPC code and print it out on your computer’s printer. George A. Vazquez Jr., a Miami-based fan of rebates, says the digital solution resolved his frustration with multiple rebates.

Keep the proof. Make copies of any rebate forms submitted, including photocopies of receipts and UPC symbols. When there are big dollars involved, request a postal delivery confirmation. It only costs a few more cents and settles the question of whether the fulfillment house received your submission on time.

Keep track of your claim. The average rebate takes six to eight weeks, but if the form says it will take longer, believe it. Contact the manufacturer as soon as the deadline passes to determine its status.

Complain, complain, complain. Make sure the retailer and manufacturer hear about your problem. Let them know that poor customer service drives away business. Written complaints aimed at the highest possible level are the most effective. Then let the right government officials know.

Michael Dershowitz, a former FTC attorney who now works as an independent legal consultant focusing on consumer protection and federal regulation, says the FTC should be at the top of your complaint list. File your complaint at the agency’s Web page or call toll-free: (877) FTC-HELP.

Tell your state attorney general’s office. It could lead to corrective legislation.

And it doesn’t hurt to contact the Better Business Bureau. Complaints nationwide are taken at its Web site.