5 On Your Side

New State Law to Rein in Rebates

Posted October 1, 2007 4:42 p.m. EDT
Updated October 1, 2007 7:40 p.m. EDT

Rebates – offered on everything from computers to cell phones – are enticing, but collecting is rarely easy.

They are a marketing tactic designed to get you to buy a product. Many companies hope you will not go through the trouble of filing a rebate, and some try to make the process difficult with limited windows of opportunity to file and tedious paperwork requirements.

"It's just frustrating and confusing for the consumer," state Senator Richard Stevens, R-Wake County, said. "It's not fair, and it's not right."

Stevens said he felt fed up after seeing the story of Carrie Whiteside, a frustrated consumer, on WRAL's 5 on Your Side.

Carrie Whiteside felt "angry, very angry" at how it took to get a rebate for two $250 cell phones.

A rebate promised to make them free, she said. First, though, she had to wait six months to file for the rebate, and then only had a short window of time to get everything in. But the company said it lost her paperwork, and Whiteside didn't get her $500 until 5 on Your Side became involved - 18 months after she bought the phones.

Stevens said he has also heard from plenty of constituents who had similar experiences. He pushed for – and got – a state rebate law.

The law requires that consumers get at least 30 days to submit paperwork and that companies then pay the refund within 60 days. Rebate forms must spell out the requirements directly on the form and give a valid phone number or e-mail address of the company offering it.

There's one caveat: Companies can make you wait up to six months to claim the rebate in the first place.

Though they admit the law is not ideal, Stevens and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said they see it as big improvement.

"I hate rebates," Cooper said. "It allows the merchant to advertise a lower price, but it makes the consumer work for the discount."

The attorney general's office received about 100 complaints about rebates in the last year. The new law, the first to lay out specific time limits, will make it easier to go after violators, Cooper said.

"Many merchants see this as a good advertising tool, and they're going to continue to use them, so it's a good idea that we have a law that clamps down on the way they do these rebates," Cooper said.

So, hopefully, fewer consumers will have to experience the rebate runaround Whiteside did.

Even with the new law, 5 on Your Side joins with Cooper in recommending that consumers don't count on a rebate but, instead, look at it as a bonus. A rebate should not be a reason to buy a particular product.