Last week, I wrote about the scandalous-seeming nature of mail-in rebates, and the column generated a large response in e-mail and on the discussion board. Some of you wrote to share your rebate pain, while others voiced adament devotion to the nuanced little programs, and admitted filing (and being paid) several rebates annually. But nearly everyone agreed on one point: You must be careful and diligent if you hope to always receive your rebate.

I also heard from a few people on the other end of the mail-in rebate equation: Retailers and workers at rebate processing facilities. While would-be rebate receivers complain about never receiving checks, those on the check-cutting side complain that a large percentage of rebate applications are incorrectly completed. Both parties have grounds for complaint. If rebate applications were simpler, more filings would be spot-on.

Overall, I tallied more than 100 responses from across the country, finding your satisfaction for mail-in rebates to be thus: 40% reported only good experiences and were happy with mail-in rebates; 38% reported poor results (including no shows) and were overall unhappy with the programs; 22% had mixed results, receiving some checks without issue, but having to fight for other checks (and not seeing some). So, 62% of you responding had at least moderate to full success, but had to fight for it sometimes.

These numbers fall in-line with the The Washington Post results referenced last week, where a retail consulting professional suggested that two-thirds of the time rebate checks arrive, either without (or with) prodding. We had a slightly higher rate of unhappy rebaters (38%) respond to us, but I attribute that to motivation. You're much more motivated to respond to an article when unhappy.

Perhaps the most valuable information gleaned, however, came from the dozens of readers who shared how to make rebates work for you, as well as which rebate programs work best for them and which were most problematic. The same company names popped up often enough to make a trend.

Rebate Programs most often praised:

Best Buy (NYSE:BBY)

Intuit's Quicken/TurboTax rebates were mentioned more than any other as being satisfying -- the rebates were paid and paid rapidly. (I can now attest to this. My TurboTax rebate, filed only in March, resulted in a check last weekend. My first rebate check ever. Nice.)

Costco and Best Buy came in close seconds, with people saying their rebates are also easy and timely. I was surprised to see Dell next on the list, given the problems others have publicly had with it, but many more people praised it than panned it.

Although not listed, Walgreen's (NYSE:WAG) and Rite-Aid (NYSE:RAD) also received praise, Rite-Aid partly because its rebates can be done online (but I can't forget that the The Washington Post columnist had trouble with Rite-Aid). Office Max and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) were also praised slightly more than panned.

But, the big three blow-out winners were Intuit for Quicken\TurboTax, Costco, and Best Buy.

Rebate programs most often panned:

Circuit City (NYSE:CC)

Those three received the most pans for their mail-in rebate programs, based on complexity, lack of results, and long time waits. However, we don't know whether the programs are retail-sponsored or sponsored by manufacturers, so we must condemn lightly. Several other businesses received criticism from readers, but not in enough volume to make them mentionable.

How to get your rebate
No matter where you seek a rebate, doing the following in order should greatly improve your success. Thanks to dozens of avid rebate receivers, these suggestions were compiled from many sources to form a strategy of success tactics.

  • Don't shop based on rebate prices; assume you'll pay full price and buy the product you want most.
  • Read the complete rebate rules carefully while at the store, before you buy the product.
  • In the rules, check rebate dates -- too often, dates are expired or near expiring.
  • Also, make certain you're buying what's needed to qualify for the rebate. Many rebates demand that you buy a second product.
  • When ready to purchase, if the store doesn't give you a duplicate receipt or rebate receipt, ask for it.
  • Use a credit card to make the purchase, so you have additional recourse should you need it.
  • Use a credit card that rewards you with miles, points, cash -- you'll get full credit despite the rebate (nice perk), but be sure to pay the balance.
  • The very day you make your purchase, commit to completing the rebate forms. This eliminates the high risk of forgetting or losing forms. When you get home, fill them out before you open the product. Copy the UPC code, if possible, before you tear it off the box, in case you damage it. Then fill out the forms to mail the next day (or as soon as you're sure you're keeping the product). Consider this Step Two to completing your purchase.
  • Before mailing rebate forms, doublecheck to make certain you followed all rules precisely, and then make copies of everything you're sending.
  • Keep these copies in a file along with contact information, the date each rebate is mailed, and when you should receive each check. Note the deadlines in your calendar. (Consider using Rebate-Tracker to track your rebates.)
  • On the back of your mail-in rebate envelope, write in large letters the date that you're sending it and the subsequent deadline by when you should receive your rebate (the 10 week, or however long, limit). The processing facility will see this and, readers suggest, know you mean business.
  • For rebate offers worth $75 or more, consider sending your forms by certified mail. It's worth the few dollars because it gives you better ammunition in getting your rebate. (But be forewarned, some rebate providers could still say they didn't receive it, saying mailed is signed for elsewhere.)
  • Once a deadline arrives, if you haven't seen your check, start calling.
  • When you contact a rebate provider, ask to speak to a manager as soon as it seems you're not being helped. Write down the date and time you called and the people you talked to for future reference. File this info with the appropriate rebate forms.
  • Keep contacting the rebate provider when need be. Call the manufacturer, too, if needed. If it gets ugly, let all parties know in writing that you'll file a formal complaint if your rebate doesn't arrive within a newly allotted time.
  • Watch your mail carefully. Several rebate checks are small and sent inexpensively, and they might look like junk mail or postcards.
  • When you receive your rebate check, celebrate and mark it "received" in your files (or pitch that file).
  • Cash your rebate check soon. Most have short life-spans before expiring.

Is this too much to do? Not really. It just requires organization and, when need be, persistence. Keeping complete records will help immensely, and should result in substantial yearly rebate refunds.

Other rebate thoughts
Ever wonder how companies can afford to sell things that are "Free!" after rebates? They can't. They count on only about 15% of customers to file for rebates on such offers. Overall, I cited figures last week that said at least 15% of all mail-in rebates are never claimed. I've since seen sources that put this figure above 50% -- which sounds more realistic. At least half of us probably just don't get around to claiming rebates. That's good for sellers, but it's our own fault.

Some people claim rebates help them save the money -- they put rebate checks directly into IRA accounts, or savings, or stock. A few hundred dollars a year, or more, adds up. This is a great way to use your rebates, rather than fritter them away. It'd be interesting to see how a lifetime of rebates, invested, would add up.

Finally, some readers shared that instant rebates are growing in popularity and are superior (although usually smaller in dollar amounts) to mail-in rebates for obvious reasons. You're paid immediately and without hassle. Watch for these.

Do you have additional thoughts on rebates? Post 'em on the Fool on the Hill board. And good luck.

Jeff Fischer doesn't own stock in any companies mentioned. The Fool has a full disclosure policy.