When you buy a TV, lamp, or even a mesh chair for your teenager to take to college this fall, what business is it of the manufacturer to ask about your income, education, hobbies, and the car you drive? Frankly, none. It’s a tactic called data mining, the harvesting of personal information for companies to sell to marketers.
Companies make money from the data; you get peppered with spam and unsolicited sales pitches. Yet many consumers are scared into filling out those pesky product registration cards (or doing so online), fearing that failure to do so will void their warranty rights.
According to the California-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer education organization, the demographic questions amount to a deceptive data collection practice that has nothing to do with product registration. If you need to file a warranty claim, a sales receipt should suffice.
None of the demographic and lifestyle information is necessary to register the product with the company, according to the PRC. Yet, registration forms don’t typically say so. Instead, there’s often a warning about the importance of filling out and mailing in the form, with the implication that failure to do so can invalidate the product warranty. The opt-out notices on such forms are usually written in vague terms, small type, and appear at the end of the survey.
Federal regulations actually require companies to disclose to consumers if the return of a registration card is a requirement for warranty coverage and vice versa.
The Federal Trade Commission says that the Code of Federal Regulations allows companies to ask consumers to complete warranty registration for products that come with a “limited” warranty (the kind of coverage that accompanies most products) if they disclose up front precisely what is required. Products that come with a “full” warranty, a relative rarity, cannot require registration as a condition of coverage.
There is a plus side to product registration. If you make available your college-bound teen's name and contact information, along with a product model and serial number, a company can reach her if there’s a safety recall. In fact, many children’s products must be accompanied by registration cards for that very reason.
Bottom line: Read the warranty to determine the coverage requirements and provide the bare minimum. If registration is required, consider whether the likelihood of making a claim is worth the disclosure of personal information. It’s probably unwarranted for, say, an inexpensive, nondangerous product such as a flash drive for storing electronic files, but worth considering for a product such as a lawnmower, though that is something your child is unlikely to need.
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