Mail-in rebates can seem like a great deal. Retail ads are filled with "rebate specials," often including items that are nearly free after the rebate amount is deducted. These deals are hard to resist - which is exactly what retailers and manufacturers are counting on. They use rebate deals to attract customers and get them into stores. Even better, the companies often never need to pay out that rebate money at all. According to ConsumerAffairs.com, over $500 million in rebates go unclaimed every year.
IN PICTURES: 6 Ways To Save Money This Summer
"Between 40% and 60% of rebates are never redeemed," says Edgar Dworsky, founder and editor of ConsumerWorld.org.
To ensure the redemption rate stays low, companies often make it as difficult as possible for consumers to claim their rebates. Here are some common tactics.
Multiple Rebates for the Same Item
On the surface, getting more than one rebate on a single item seems like a jackpot for the consumer. In reality, though, it often makes the process too complicated for many people to pursue.
"Each rebate often requires separate mailing, and different proofs of purchase," notes Dworksy. Often, the consumer doesn't realize he needs multiple copies of the receipt or proof of purchase until it's too late. (Find out more retailer tactics and how to avoid them in Attention Discount Shoppers: Don't Buy Just Because It's On Sale.)
Rebates in the Form of a Debit Card
Lately, many companies have begun sending rebates that are pre-loaded on debit cards, which can be inconvenient and confusing for consumers.
"Because these cards come with expiration dates, the companies can plan when they can return that income on their balance sheets," says Christopher Grande, a principal with Walnut Hill Advisors, LLC. Grande has first-hand experience with this tactic, having recently lost nearly half of a $100 rebate card when he forgot to use the balance before it expired.
These rebate cards also sometime have "maintenance fees" or other charges. Plus, many customers who are expecting a traditional paper check rebate in the mail may throw the debit card away, mistaking it for a pre-approved credit card offer. (Learn about a new way to budget that can save you big bucks in Gift Card Budgeting: Pushing (Out) The Envelope.)
Hard-to-Access Required Documentation
"Sometimes the proof of purchase is hard to get at," says Dworksy. "It could be under a hard clamshell plastic package, for instance. Or it could be the inside flap of a box, where a customer is not used to looking." In cases like this, the consumer may unwittingly damage or tear the proof of purchase while opening the package - or may throw it away without even realizing it.
Complicated, Time-Consuming Processes
"If you don't read the fine print and follow all the instructions, your rebate is denied," says Erin Edwards of FunWithFreebies.com. "Companies are counting on the fact that some people will abandon the rebate process entirely or make mistakes when filling out the form. They also add very specific instructions and hope you will not notice the fine print or deadlines for submitting the rebates."
Another popular tactic: an extremely short rebate redemption period, causing consumers to miss the deadline if they don't submit the forms immediately.
Counting on Forgetful Consumers
If the rebate simply never arrives at all, the company is betting on the fact that you won't notice. "Sometimes the manufacturer delays paying the rebate fulfillment house, and the consumer simply forgets after eight weeks that they are even owed money," says Dworksy. (For related reading, take a look at 5 Money-Saving Shopping Tips.)
Avoid Losing Out
To make sure you get the rebates you're entitled to, be very careful to read all the fine print, submit all required paperwork quickly (after making copies for your records) and follow up if you don't receive an expected rebate in a timely manner. And the next time you are shopping, make sure you consider the hassle of handling a rebate claim before you purchase that item.
Catch up on your financial news; read Water Cooler Finance: A Diving Dow And Rotting Eggs.