Make Rebates Work for You

These cash-back offers can save you money -- just be sure to follow these steps.
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Rebates are a double-edged sword. They look wonderful when you see the price of the item you're buying with the rebate price included, but they can end up costing you money if you don't follow through and actually receive the rebate.

It's only a great price if you actually get the rebate amount refunded to you. If it is a large purchase, such as a computer system, this can be the difference between several hundred dollars in your bank account or down the drain.

According to

BusinessWeek

,

almost a third of all computers and gadgets now are sold with some type of rebate attached, with one-fifth of all digital cameras, camcorders and LCD TVs having some type of rebate. Not all consumers take advantage of these rebates. In 2005, an estimated 40% were never redeemed for a variety of reasons, and this added an extra $2 billion to the retailers' and manufacturers' bottom line.

While the process for getting a rebate may seem pretty straightforward, it doesn't always work that way. The Federal Trade Commission set up a

study about rebate programs in April, in part because "many consumers have had negative experiences with rebates and have begun to distrust them." There was even a recent instance where a computer parts supplier in California

simply dumped 1,300 rebate applications into the trash, rather than process them.

Here are the steps you need to take to ensure that you get the rebates you have coming to you:

Read:

Make sure that you get the rebate form and read it carefully before making the purchase. You will need to follow the directions exactly, and if for some reason you can't, then that money likely will be lost. This can mean that the great deal you thought you were getting may not be nearly as good as you first thought.

Get receipts:

Almost all rebates require the original receipt to be sent in. If you are purchasing multiple items that all have rebate forms to be filled out, make sure you get multiple receipts; another option is to buy each item separately. Many people don't realize this and get home with a single receipt for multiple rebate forms and lose out on all but one.

Purchase the right model:

Many models look similar, and model names can be confusingly close when it comes to electronics. Make sure that you purchase the correct model and number for the rebate you want to receive.

Check the expiration date:

Almost all rebates have expiration dates, and many of them are limited-time offers. Make sure that you will have the needed time to get the rebate form filled out and sent in. Also make sure that it has enough postage -- some rebate forms are lengthy, and when you add in the proof of purchases, they often require additional postage. Not putting enough on can get the letter sent back to you, resulting in you missing the rebate deadline.

Follow the instructions:

If you are the type who thinks it's OK as long as it's generally correct, you may find that your rebate request is denied. They want everything exactly as it is spelled out in their instructions. If the company specifies that it wants the original receipt, a copy won't do. If it says the form should be filled out in black ink, then blue ink can invalidate it. If it asks for the product proof of purchase is not to be stapled to the form and you staple it, your request may well be rejected. Also be aware that many rebates require a physical address with street number and will not sent to a post-office box. Make sure there is no reason for your rebate application to be denied, because the company may deny it if given the opportunity.

Fill out the form:

While this may sound obvious, many people never do it. Fill it out immediately when you get home so that you don't forget. Even if you have the best intentions to do it in a few days, things happen, and by the time you remember, it may be too late.

Make copies:

Don't send off the rebate form without first making a photo copy of everything. This includes not only the rebate form but also the receipt and product proof-of-purchase identification requested. Also note the phone number or Web site on the rebate form in case you have any problems. Things do go wrong with rebates, and having these copies will be your proof if you need to make a claim.

Mark it on your calendar:

Rebate checks take time to arrive -- usually 12 weeks. Even worse, they often arrive in envelopes or as postcards that appear to be junk mail. This means you need to carefully look through your mail -- don't accidentally throw them away. Marking the time on the calendar when you should receive your rebate will also remind you if a rebate hasn't arrived, so that you can take steps to get it instead of accidentally forgetting about it.

Track it:

The responsibility for fulfilling the rebate is usually outsourced to rebate warehouses, meaning the manufacturer or retailer themselves doesn't actually process it. You can find the warehouse handling your claim at

MyRebates.com and you can check on your rebate status at Web sites such as

Track Your Rebate and

rebatestatus.com.

Follow up:

If the date on your calendar passes without receiving the rebate you were promised, contact both the company and the rebate fulfillment center that is handling your request. Your copies of the rebate forms may be needed to resolve the issue. If that doesn't work, then you can

make a complaint.

By being organized and keeping track of the rebates you apply for, you will help ensure that you receive all the money back that you were promised.

Jeffrey Strain has been a freelance personal finance writer for the past 10 years helping people save money and get their finances in order. He currently owns and runs SavingAdvice.com.