The consumer rebate debate

A bad experience with Sprint, a speedy response from T-Mobile, and a surprising notice from Western Digital lead the Gripe Line to wonder if the consumer rebate game has changed

One Gripe Line reader became so frustrated over Sprint's mishandling of a cell phone rebate offer that she's vowed never to do business with the company again.

Miss reports that she bought her phone in May 2008 and "repeatedly submitted the rebate request," she explains. "Each time, Sprint claimed the requested rebate was never received." She did not give up, though that meant resubmitting her forms and eventually filing complaints with the attorney general's office, the Better Business Bureau, and the media. "I filed Sprint rebate fraud complaints with every TV reporter in all 50 states and blogs in London, Australia, Pakistan, Brazil, and Mexico," she says.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Not all rebates go unanswered, as the Gripe Line is happy to report in "When retailer refunds go unrequited" | Frustrated by tech support? Get answers in InfoWorld's Gripe Line newsletter. ]

Once upon a time, as a consumer advocate, I saw complaints like Miss' frequently. It got to the point where I'd notice a rebate offer from a high-tech company, and I knew I could soon expect a rash of complaints from consumers flustered by their attempts to claim said rebate, accompanied by pledges to cut off all business ties with the company. It also moved me to wonder if any of the brilliant "suits" behind the idea ever did the math on how many customers they lost when the rebate offer went south.

I was so traumatized by covering these debacles that I personally avoided anything that smelled of rebate. However, cell phones are a different matter. That free phone (with rebate) offer is just so prevalent -- and tempting.

In fact, I recently purchased two T-Mobile cell phones for my kids that each came with a $50 rebate. I filed the paperwork promptly, made copies of all documents, and dotted my i's and crossed my t's like any good consumer advocate expecting a battle to the death. After all, according to Consumer Affairs, more than $500 million in rebates go unclaimed every year, often "due to deceptive practices on the part of the companies or their promotions companies." But my rebates both arrived -- in the form of Visa gift cards -- without a hiccup and with a polite letter, long before I expected them.

In the same batch of mail that contained Miss' letter, I got a note from Peter, who was also surprised by a rebate experience. "I recently received a letter from Western Digital about an unclaimed rebate from 2005," he says. "The company included a form I could return by mail, fax, or even by scanning it and emailing it, which is what I did. Of course it remains to be seen if I actually get a check. But this is a big change from the more usual missing rebate checks."

Miss did finally get her rebate -- 18 months after she filed that first form. That was much too late for Sprint to consider ever winning her business back or even her word-of-mouth recommendations. She went a step further: "My contract expired and I promptly canceled my account with Sprint."

But these three wildly divergent rebate experiences -- Miss', mine, and Peter's -- got me wondering. Is Miss' frustration and subsequent revolt still typical of the rebate game? Or has the FTC and the individual states' willingness to take big companies to task on these matters improved the situation? Have advances in electronically handling of rebates [PDF] eliminated the morass of mistakes? Or do you think companies realized that whatever they gain by offering rebates is lost when they cause customers to flee?

What has your experience been with rebates in the last couple of years?

Got gripes? Send them to christina_tynan-wood@infoworld.com.

This story, "The consumer rebate debate," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Christina Tynan-Wood's Gripe Line blog at InfoWorld.com.

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