A lot of us (including myself) have gotten trapped in the cycle of calling some rebate center, being told "sorry about the processing error, your rebate is now approved, please wait 10-12 weeks for a check", waiting 10-12 weeks, not getting the check, and calling AGAIN and being told the same thing they told you 10-12 weeks ago. If you do as they tell you, you'll eventually be told (as I have) that "the rebate has expired; it was only valid for six months". The whole system seems designed to "delay, delay, deny".

Well, enough is enough.

I think the key mistakes that the rebate issuers want you to make are:

* "It's the rebate center's fault." -- No way! The product MANUFACTURER (usually) is the one who's made the rebate offer and is legally responsible for fulfilling it. If they want to hire a rebate center to do their dirty work, that's their choice, but there are still only two parties to the rebate contract-- YOU and the MANUFACTURER (and/or the retail store). The rebate center is just the AGENT of the rebate issuer. If the rebate center isn't doing a good job, that's still the legal responsibility of the rebate issuer. So why go round and round with the rebate center? It just doesn't make any legal sense. In other words, if the rebate form says "allow 10-12 weeks" and you don't have the check after 12 weeks and 0 days, then the rebate issuer is in BREACH OF CONTRACT. I don't see any reason why we should put up with more than ONE CALL to the rebate center and a maximum of ONE WEEK extra delay to get the check. After that, they've clearly demonstrated that they're all about "delay, delay, deny", not about honest problem-solving.

* "It's the manufacturer's fault" (said by the retail store)-- Not if the store advertised the rebate! In California, if the retail store advertised the rebate, then they are co-responsible with the manufacturer for paying the rebate. In other states, the retail store is probably legally responsible under contract law if the store advertised the rebate without disclosing that the reason they're offering a rebate instead of a cash discount is that they expect that a very low percentage of rebates will be successfully redeemed.

* "You need to wait-- that's the system"-- NOT if the time specified on the rebate form has already passed! The FTC says: "By law, companies are required to send rebates within the time frame promised, or if no time is specified, within 30 days."

I've had about a 99% success rate in collecting several hundred rebates. (There were a few I couldn't collect, but that was before I started logging and keeping scanned copies of ALL rebates submitted.) The problem is it takes it chews up way too much time (especially time spent on the phone and time spent resubmitting paperwork that was "not in our system"), so I'm starting to use a modified rebate collection system (detailed below). The idea is to get paid with as little hassle as possible and also to collect evidence that law enforcement agencies can use in court.

1) Buy the product and send in the rebate form, after making a scanned copy of the filled-out rebate form, UPC, and sales receipt. Make a note of the date, store, manufacturer, and amount in your paper rebate log. Don't throw away anything (product box, plastic container, manuals, etc.) until the rebate has arrived!

Also, get Delivery Confirmation so that you have PROOF of when it was delivered-- no more hearing that your rebate was "received" three weeks after you mailed it! You can get Delivery Confirmation for 13 cents (instead of 55 cents) and WITHOUT a trip to the Post Office as follows:
* Download USPS Shipping Assistant. This is a free tool that will print out Delivery Confirmation labels for you. Unlike the web version (which only prints labels for Priority Mail), the downloadable program will print out labels for First Class Mail and Media Mail.
* When you print out the shipping label, also save the label's PDF or GIF file. The reason is that Track and Confirm only shows the destination ZIP code, not the whole address. If you save the label's file, the DC number will on it in combination with the online DC database will provide proof of delivery to a specific address. (Note: Electronic Delivery Confirmation records are only available online, not over the phone, and only for six months.)
* Use a Tyvek envelope (in case it get rough treatment) and put some bubble wrap in the envelope so that the envelope is at least 3/4" thick. (Delivery Confirmation is only for packages that are at least 3/4" thick.) If the envelope weighs one ounce, add an extra 12 cents for the nonmachineable surcharge. The total postage should be 62 cents for one ounce or 73 cents for two ounces (since the nonmachineable surcharge only applies to one-ounce mail). Here are a couple threads on the topic.
* Delivery Confirmation is probably better proof of the delivery date than Certified Mail, since the rebate center can deliberately delay signing for their Certified Mail at the Post Office window.

2) Allow an extra month beyond the rebate period stated on the rebate form. If the check doesn't arrive, call the rebate center (recording the call on your $20 voice modem and making sure to stay legal by saying "I'm recording this call"). If they say "allow 4-6 weeks" or "I will submit your request for approval", remind them that they are already in breach of contract, and that unless they are willing to commit to mailing out a check within a week, that you will immediately call the retail store's manager. Remember, the whole point of rebate centers seems to be to wear you out! So DON'T PLAY THEIR GAME-- if they don't cooperate, ESCALATE!!

One of the hassles of each level in the rebate collection process is having to re-explain the problem over and over, and re-fax the documentation over and over. What I have been doing lately is to put together a web page that includes a generic complaint letter and JPG images of the documentation. That way, all I have to typically do is email the URL. If they insist that the information must be faxed or snail-mailed, then I usually take that as obstructionism, and immediately escalate the issue to the next level. (It's the 21st century, after all!) (I scan my rebates at 150 dpi so that the scan shows all the fine print clearly. One problem with Internet Explorer is that when these oversized images are printed out, IE doesn't print the right side of the image. (Neither 'Windows Picture and Fax Viewer' nor Mozilla have this problem.) However, this HTML solves the problem perfectly both on-screen and when-printed: '<img src=myfile.jpg width=90%>' (no height attribute).)

3) Call the manager of the retail store where you bought the item. THIS IS THE MAGIC BULLET-- store managers probably hate rebate BS even more than you do!! Both Frys and COMPUSA have special rebate-follow-up departments-- people who sit there all day on the phone trying to get your rebate. All you have to do is email or fax your documentation to the store manager. Then THEY can waste as much of their time as they want fighting with the rebate center-- SWEET!!! If they fail, the store manager will mail you a gift certificate for the amount of the rebate. If the manager can't or won't cooperate (AND you're sure that your request is legitimate), tell him that your next step is to write the CEO, and ask for the spelling of the store manager's name.

4) If there's no "store manager", if the store manager is unwilling to commit to solving your problem, or if the store manager hasn't solved your problem within two weeks, send an email or fax to the CEO of the store chain. This is ANOTHER MAGIC BULLET. I sent an email to Michael Dell with attached JPG images of the scanned paperwork, and a guy from their executive office called back within HOURS and committed to mailing the full rebate amount within 10 days!

5) If the CEO hasn't solved the problem within 24 hours, file a complaint at BBB.org. BBB is takes weeks to respond, but they can sometimes get results.

6) File a complaint at PlanetFeedback.

7) Complain to the business's partners. An example of this is complaining to the store about the manufacturer's not paying the rebate.

8) If appropriate, and if you're sure you haven't done anything wrong, file complaints with your state department of consumer affairs, your state attorney general, the FTC, the FBI, and the Postal Inspection Service. (Intentionally cheating people out of their rebates is FRAUD, after all!) Most of these agencies won't actually investigate on your behalf, but they will send a letter to the company. A lot of times, the company will realize it's time to pay when they see get a letter from the Postal Inspection Service or the Attorney General. If you've kept copies of all paperwork and notes or recordings of every phone call, you have very valuable evidence that can be used against the company in court (so MENTION in your complaint that you have perfect records of everything).

9) Take the company to court. That might sound extreme for something as small as a rebate, but the filing cost for small claims court is CHEAP-- $22 in California. Filing a claim doesn't mean you need to hire a lawyer or pay any further fees-- in fact, lawyers are not allowed in CA small claims court, and the most cost-effective strategy is probably to file a small claims case and then immediately get on the phone to the company, tell them you've filed a small claims case against them, negotiate a settlement (now that they know it will cost them real money to keep ignoring you, they'll be much more cooperative), and then drop the case. If the company is still unresponsive, then they probably won't show up in court on the trial date (so you'll win just by showing up). Regarding whether going to court would be held against you (for example, by future employers), I suspect that if the details of the case would make a good "honest customer fights back against crooked business" story in the newspaper, then any honest employer would see it as "this guy gets results!" (and you as someone they'd want on their team). Here are some threads (1 2 3 4 5 6 7) by folks that sued in Small Claims Court. In every case the company settled before trial, and in most cases the consumer ended up with not just the missing money and court costs, but also money to cover their time. Unsure? You can observe a Small Claims Court session without participating-- it's free and quite interesting. Here is a checklist of consumer laws. NOLO.com publishes a couple excellent guidebooks: Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court and Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California. My local library had plenty of copies. In California, you can get Small Claims Court procedural advice for free (such as having the sheriff serve process rather than using Certified Mail (to avoid refused delivery)) through the Small Claims Advisor. Usually you leave your phone number and the Small Claims Advisor will call you back in a couple days. I've found that the advice is very helpful IF you write out your questions in advance and in detail. You can also get legal advice over the phone through Legal Services Plan for $10/month.

Here's an article that has a similar rebate collections procedure. (Is is COLLECTIONS, isn't it? We're dealing with deadbeat manufacturers who won't pay if they can get away with it, and we have to figure out how to get them to pay!)