In the rebate game, the consumer almost always loses

My wife and son did the oft-discussed, post-Thanksgiving shopping this past holiday season. A couple days later, they approached me and (faux) innocently asked if I would handle the various rebates for them. Some, I was told, could even be handled online. "Sure, why not?" I said. How hard could it be?

I am now engaged in full-out commerce wars in at least four countries and probably two continents.

The rebate amounts were substantial, totaling nearly $600. Two months later, we've received exactly $130, and how much (if any) of the rest we'll get is anybody's guess.

First of all, I'd like to know the logic behind rebates in the first place. Why not just knock the price down by that amount and be done with it?

They could just put up a sign that reads, "We at Samsung (all names mentioned herein are of actual offending parties, and I hope their stores and/or companies suffer setbacks, downturns and locusts) really appreciate your business, so while Best Buy is knocking off $50 from its original price, we'll knock off an additional $50 from our profit just to thank you for showing up so ungodly early this morning." I'd like some business-school grad to explain the concept of rebates to me.

I contend that it is a scam with a series of ridiculously arcane and obscure hoops through which the consumer must jump in order to retrieve the money that is rightfully his. Some of these hoops are like airline seats, too small for the average person to navigate through. Others are hidden in a thicket of contradictory language, while still others seem to have an invisible Plexiglas shield around them to not only prevent the harried hoop-jumper from completing his task, but also to send him away with a headache that should make him think twice before ever trying that again.

Anyway, they did all their shopping at Wal-Mart, Office Max and Best Buy. At least one of the rebates was a double rebate with both the store and company offering money back. I filled out everything, but then realized that BOTH of them wanted the original UPC symbol. I made a photocopy of it and sent that along with an explanation that the darned item only had one original UPC, and I had sent that to the company, because their rebate was bigger.

A couple weeks later, I got a little white postcard in the mail explaining that they needed the original UPC. Before I could actually respond, I got another white postcard in the mail, this one from the company, also asking for the original UPC, which, of course, I had sent them. I wrote both companies letters and am still waiting to hear back from them.

I got one online rebate back, but on the other, I got (you guessed it!) a white postcard, this one claiming that the item in question had been returned. This was not true; it had been exchanged, because the package was open.

Most of the rebate requests have to be mailed to (ahem) El Paso, Texas. This suggests that much of the work is being done by those who have benefited from the best third-grade education the Juarez school system has to offer. One card I received had an 800 number I could call. I managed to talk to a guy, but he obviously wasn't from El Paso. He wasn't much help, either, seeing as how his accented voice was pretty much drowned out by the background sound of cattle walking the streets.

This whole thing is like when the Navy conducts a burial at sea. They drape a flag over the coffin and then just drop the coffin into the ocean, holding on to the flag. The companies offer these rebates, knowing full well that they will only have to pay out a small fraction of them.

I believe that of all the people who receive these rebate offers, probably half of them get caught up in the Christmas holiday frenzy and never submit them (that's their fault, but I'm sure the companies have done research on this and can count on the consumers' laziness). Then, half of those who do submit them probably get frustrated when the white postcards start arriving and just throw their hands up in frustration. Then, half of those who re-submit get another white postcard and just swear off rebate offers (until the next Thanksgiving). Pretty soon, we're down to (a guess) about 10 percent of those who deserve a rebate actually receiving one.

So far, I've submitted 13 rebate requests. I've received three checks, nine first postcards, a form letter and six second postcards. (The fact that the companies have these postcards already printed up with the various excuses in place sends up a gigantic red flag.) I'm not going to give up, because it's the principle of the thing. Plus, I don't really work for a living. I would call my congressman, but I live in Jim Kolbe's district, so I really don't have one.

That's an all-purpose joke that would have worked equally as well in Raul Grijalva's district.

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