Ban mail-in rebates

I de spise mail-in rebates. On the marketing irritation scale, mail-in rebates rank up there with infomercials for worthless products and telemarketers that consider the "do not call" list merely a suggestion.

I bring this up because I recently had to deal with two rebates for my Fujitsu ScanSnap S510M. To their credit, the Fujitsu rebates turned out to be less of a hassle than most. But they still had their share of problems.

The major problem with all mail-in rebates is that they are designed to have you fail. With an unethical deliberateness, rebate vendors make it both annoying and difficult to obtain the promised reward.

The most assuredly annoying aspect of redeeming a rebate is the waiting game. Unlike "in-store" coupons or "instant rebates," you have (as implied by their name) to mail in something in order to qualify for the rebate. After making a purchase, you should probably wait a few days before doing anything (just to make sure you don't want to return the item instead of claiming the rebate). At this point, you may take another few days before you get around to filling out the form, circling the item on the sales receipt, cutting out the UPC code from the box, giving thanks to Ra, and whatever other irritating tasks may be required. When you finally have it all done, and you've affixed the postage to the envelope and mailed it off, your real wait has just begun: you typically have to wait 8-12 weeks before you have any chance of seeing your rebate!

During this waiting period, there is often no way to check on the status of your rebate. If you're lucky, you may receive an email notification that your submission was received, which is not the same as approved. Alternatively, there may be a Web site where you can get similar feedback. But don't count on any of this.

This, in turn, too often leads to the rebate denial "gotcha." After months of waiting and wondering, a postcard at last arrives. Is it your rebate check? Nope. It's a note informing you that your rebate has been rejected. The card may offer no further explanation. In many cases, there is not even a phone number to call. At best, you may be able to write a letter of inquiry.

If you are told what went wrong, there is often nothing you can do about it. The company may claim, for example, that the required UPC cut-out was not included, even though you know you sent it. It's an argument you will lose. In one case, my rebate was declared ineligible because I had affixed an address label to the form, rather than writing my name and address by hand. Filling the form out by hand turned out to be a requirement. And, no, I would not be allowed to resubmit.

If your rebate doesn't arrive after the 8–12 week period expires, and you haven't received a denial, and you know of some way to contact the rebate vendor, and you still even remember that you submitted a rebate, then (and only then) can you inquire about the status of your submission. The odds of success are quite low now. More than likely, the vendor will claim to have no record of ever receiving your envelope—at which point you can kiss your rebate goodbye.

Given all of these obstacles and irritations, I avoid mail-in rebates like poison oak on a hike. That is, I never buy an item that I would not have purchased even without the rebate. If the potential rebate savings is what would tip the scale in favor of a purchase, I just say no. If I do buy an item under these rules, and there is an associated rebate, I may reluctantly submit it—if it seems worth the bother. Sometimes it is not. I have seen rebates for as little as $1.00. Given that it costs 41 cents in postage just to submit the rebate, I won't even consider wasting my time here. If the submission failed for some reason, instead of saving 59 cents, I'd lose 41 cents. What a bargain!

All of this could be avoided, of course, if you could instantly redeem the rebate at the time of purchase. But that would defeat the main purpose of the rebate—which is to get you to fail. The concept falls into the same ball park as gift card breakage. As stated on this Web site: "Consumer Reports estimated that 19% of the people who received a gift card in 2005 never used it." Even if you do use the card, it is common to never completely use it up (due to forgetfulness or the card getting lost). The unspent value is pure profit for the card vendor. Similarly, if you never bother to submit a rebate or if your rebate gets denied on some dubious technicality, the vendor pockets the money instead of you.

As to the specifics of my Fujitsu rebates, there were two separate items: one was for $50. The other was for free Readiris Pro and Cardiris software. The first obstacle to redeeming these rebates was discovering that they even existed. Several of the sellers (including, that I checked when searching the Web, did not list the rebates as available. I could have easily missed them. I am not sure if or how this works to Fujitsu's advantage. Perhaps they figure that knowledgeable users will seek out the rebate, while the rest will be content to pay the full price. That is not compelling logic to me. But who knows.

Anyway, if you do check Fujitsu's Web site, you won't have too much trouble locating the rebates.

Both rebates have exactly the same terms—same basic requirements, same deadlines. Fujitsu could have made things easier by combining both rebates into one. But, as I have already stressed, making things easier is not the point of these rebates.

After dutifully gathering and mailing off the needed materials, I waited the required 8 week minimum. At this point, I was notified that one of my rebates was denied (the other was approved, and I have since received my $50 check). The reason for the denial: the serial number I gave was incorrect. Fortunately, I saved a photocopy of everything I sent (something I recommend doing whenever you submit a rebate). I checked and indeed the number was in error: I had entered the part number rather than the serial number. An easy mistake to make, but a mistake never-the-less.

To my surprise (bonus points to Fujitsu here), I was able to contact an actual person and get this corrected without too much aggravation. The bad news was that I now had to wait an additional 8-10 weeks before I would receive the software. When I asked why this delay was necessary, I was given some song-and-dance about how the rebate company (which is independent of Fujitsu) had to send the material back to Fujitsu for confirmation. You'd think these companies had never heard of computers or how databases could easily make a resubmission quick and painless.

As things now stand, I am still waiting for my free software. I expect I will receive it eventually. However, if the software was critical to my use of the scanner, I would be looking at a 5 month wait before I could get anything done. It would either be that, or buy the software and defeat the purpose of the rebate.

OK, compared to the mortgage crisis and the war in Iraq, this is not the most pressing issue on the political agenda. But I say let's ban mail-in rebates. If vendors can't bring themselves to offer an honest no-hassle method for offering a discount, let them offer nothing.