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Gerri Willis Commentary:
Top Tips by Gerri Willis Column archive
Rebates: Get what's coming to you
Promised cash back doesn't always come; 5 tips on how to make sure the check's in the mail.
By Gerri Willis, CNN/Money contributing columnist

NEW YORK (CNN) - Rebates are supposed to help you save some cash on your purchases, but are consumers getting the short end of deal?

In many cases, yes. In today's top five tips we'll arm you with what you need to know to get the price you were promised.

1) Know the policy
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Forty percent of all rebates never get redeemed because people fail to apply for them or their applications are rejected, according to some estimates.

And don't assume that the rebate price is the price you'll get.

"The after-rebate advertisement is an attention grabber," says consumer advocate Ed Dworsky.

The company makes money when you forget to send in the rebate or fill it out incorrectly.

Before you get "baited" by a rebate policy, make sure you understand the terms.

If you're buying a product online, make sure that you can print out that rebate application off of your home computer. The paperwork may not be included with the item when it arrives, says Dworsky.

2) Follow the rules

If you're filling out a rebate form, you have to be a perfectionist.

If the application calls for black ink, do it. If you're instructed to draw a circle around the sale price or the sales date, don't forget to do it.

According to the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, some rebate companies will reject the rebate if the form is torn, dirty or otherwise "mutilated."

Use a street address instead of a post office box. Rebate companies will not send rebates there. And often original receipts are required, not copies.

3) Watch your deadlines

Some rebates expire in as little as 14 days, but you'll have to wait up to 12 weeks to get your money back.

The government requires that you receive your rebate in the time that the company specified.

If no date is given, the Federal Trade Commission says it should come in a reasonable amount of time. That's about a month.

You should take note of when you'll be receiving your rebate. Sometimes rebate checks are in the form of postcards and it is easy to get caught in magazines or flyers, says Dworsky.

4) Track it online

Manufacturers and retailers are counting on the fact that a certain percentage of people won't ever see their rebate money.

So it's up to you to be vigilant. Rebate fulfillment houses are responsible for providing rebates, not individual companies.

If you don't know who will be processing your rebate, check out www.myrebates.com.

You can enter the manufacture or retailer you bought from, and you'll be directed to the rebate center so that you can track the status of your rebate.

And many of these rebate houses have Web sites where you can follow your rebate. Check out www.wheresmyrebate.com or www.rebatestatus.com.

5) Be the squeaky wheel

In this case, it's going to pay off for you.

In fact, since 2001, complaints about rebate companies have tripled to over 3500.

But you're going to need copies of every document.

Your first complaint should go to your local Better Business Bureau. You can find that info at www.bbb.org.

Then you may want to try bending the ears of your state's Attorney General. Check out www.NAAG.org.

Then you should file a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov or 877-382-4357.

You can also go to www.planetfeedback.com if you just wanna get it off your chest.


Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to 5tips@cnn.com.

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