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Warranties: To Register or Not to Register . . .

Consumers: Personal information is probably best given strictly on a need-to-know basis.

January 02, 1998|DON OLDENBURG | WASHINGTON POST

It's the season to fill out and send in those product warranty and customer registration cards that arrived inside the boxes of so many of your holiday gifts.

Or, maybe, not to . . .

They are just one more hassle, of course. And has anyone not figured out yet that data-mining manufacturers cull your name, address and other personal information from those cards and sell it (and your privacy) to junk mailers? Even worse, today's marketing mentality figures your willingness to send in that completed card marks you as someone responsive to direct-marketing solicitations.

But, depending on the kind of product, these cards sometimes can serve your best interests in ways that shouldn't be ignored.

First, to clear up a consumer myth: If you don't send in the completed card, do you void your warranty or give up your rights? No, you do not. Should a problem with the product arise, many manufacturers use those replies to confirm warranty information. But, by law, card or no card, products must be of a "saleable quality" and any major problems that occur within a reasonable (or warranty-defined) period must be rectified (repaired, replaced or the purchase price refunded) by the manufacturer or distributor.

The warranty period begins on the date of purchase. Your original invoice or receipt showing the date of purchase is your proof and critical document--or any authorized and stamped warranty certificate from the manufacturer.

Then why bother with the cards? Many computer-component and software manufacturers, for instance, will provide technical assistance only if you have registered. By providing the usual personal data plus information about your computer system, you enable their customer support techies to find quick solutions. These companies also often offer free or discounted upgrades and companion products to their registered customers.

Generally, all manufacturers use returned warranty cards to notify customers about product warnings and recalls.

"The reason that auto recalls work so well is that the dealer knows where to reach you," said Kathleen Begala, director of public affairs at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "But when you buy a baby stroller, unless you send a warranty card back to the manufacturer, they have no idea who has purchased it."

More sensitive or sensible manufacturers now include an opt-out box on their cards that, when marked, excludes the information from going to a mailing list. Consumers can take matters into their own hands: If you decide the benefits of sending a particular warranty card outweigh the negatives, provide only your name, and address, where you bought it and when. Skip any answers the manufacturer doesn't need to know to reach you.

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