Legal Issues

by Tim Cushing


Filed Under:
ftc, right to repair, warranties



FTC Suddenly Remembers 'Warranty Void If Removed' Stickers Are Illegal, Sends Out Stern Letters To Manufacturers

from the shuts-enforcement-alarm-off-and-goes-back-to-sleep dept

The law has been around for more than 40 years, but the FTC only seems interested in enforcing it every so often. The tags slapped on electronic devices warning you that removing them will void your warranty? Complete horseshit. And illegal horseshit on top of that.

The 1975 Magnusson-Moss Warranty Act said manufacturers can't automatically void warranties just because owners have opened up their devices, performed their own repairs, or taken them to third parties for service. Nonetheless, the practice of sticking these little lies on electronics continues because the US government has yet to show an ongoing interest in protecting consumers from companies preying on consumer ignorance.

Matthew Gault at Motherboard notes the FTC has made its periodic appearance in defense of consumers, raising its head above the parapet to wordslap a few unnamed manufacturers for their continued violation of this classic mid-70s legislation.

The Federal Trade Commission put six companies on notice today, telling them in a warning letter that their warranty practices violate federal law. If you buy a car with a warranty, take it a repair shop to fix it, then have to return the car to the manufacturer, the car company isn’t legally allowed to deny the return because you took your car to another shop. The same is true of any consumer device that costs more than $15, though many manufacturers want you to think otherwise.

Companies such as Sony and Microsoft pepper the edges of their game consoles with warning labels telling customers that breaking the seal voids the warranty. That’s illegal.

Will this have any effect on the illegal practices deployed by these companies the FTC has decided to protect from public ridicule by withholding their names? It seems unlikely. Forty-plus years of half-hearted, occasional enforcement isn't much of a deterrent. The little illegal stickers generate a steady flow of customers to manufacturers and dealers for repairs and ample opportunity to deny warranty coverage for flawed products.

As the law stands now, it's easy to avoid even without using void-if-removed stickers. Apple's warranty policy -- like that of several other device manufacturers -- follows the letter of the law while avoiding its spirit entirely. The company tells consumers that repairing devices on their own or seeking the assistance of non-Apple techs may result in a voided warranty. No specifics are offered as to what non-Apple services won't void the warranty so most customers play it safe and go directly to the manufacturer for service.

As Gault points out, the law has only been used once in court proceedings since its inception. The FTC doesn't tend to make much noise about ongoing violations, but has at least made an effort to inform consumers that every product that retails for more than $5 is covered by the statute. Still, the law is easy enough to dodge using nothing more than the word "may," so it's done almost nothing to prevent manufacturers from locking consumers into disadvantageous relationships and denying them the opportunity to treat purchased items like they actually own them.


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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 11 Apr 2018 @ 12:34pm

    This seems particularly preposterous in products that need parts replaced because of wear and tear (ie: cars). Just let me replace them at my trusty little mechanic/repair shop in the neighborhood.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Gary (profile), 11 Apr 2018 @ 1:49pm

    Time...?

    Hey, it only took the FTC 41 years to enforce that rule. So I'm sure enforcing ISP violations will only take half that time!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Apr 2018 @ 1:55pm

    FTC not doing its job

    There's a shocker!

    If I picked up a lost experimental iPhone the police would break my fucking door down to get it back, but I keep getting a bunch of calls from rotating numbers to sell me auto insurance...

    priorities!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Apr 2018 @ 1:59pm

    "Specifics"

    No specifics are offered as to what non-Apple services won't void the warranty so most customers play it safe and go directly to the manufacturer for service.

    But the law is reasonably clear:

    (c) Prohibition on conditions for written or implied warranty; waiver by Commission - No warrantor of a consumer product may condition his written or implied warranty of such product on the consumer's using, in connection with such product, any article or service (other than article or service provided without charge under the terms of the warranty) which is identified by brand, trade, or corporate name; except that the prohibition of this subsection may be waived by the Commission if - (1) the warrantor satisfies the Commission that the warranted product will function properly only if the article or service so identified is used in connection with the warranted product, and (2) the Commission finds that such a waiver is in the public interest.

    The Commission shall identify in the Federal Register, and permit public comment on, all applications for waiver of the prohibition of this subsection, and shall publish in the Federal Register its disposition of any such application, including the reasons therefor.

    So, does Apple have a waiver logged in the Federal Register? If not, no non-Apple services can automatically void the warranty. It would of course still be (at least partially) void if they actually damage the device while attempting to repair it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Cathy Garrett, 11 Apr 2018 @ 2:20pm

    Think Geek t-shirt

    You mean this product is a lie?

    https://www.thinkgeek.com/product/8f52/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Apr 2018 @ 2:53pm

    Letters to hard drive manufacturers should go out immediately. They are notorious with the stickers and voiding warranty repair requests.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Apr 2018 @ 3:02pm

      Re:

      You can suggest it to the FTC, or file a complaint if a claim has been unfairly denied.

      Hard drives are sealed against dust, making them a great example of when this law might not help you. It's fair to call the warranty void if you've opened it outside a cleanroom. But there is the specific case of those external hard drives, which are just an internal drive in a USB enclosure (and often cheaper than buying the internal drive alone). If you've opened the enclosure to make the product compatible with your computer's SATA port, and the internal piece is otherwise unmolested, that's not a valid reason to deny a warranty claim on it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Apr 2018 @ 3:11pm

    Can A Modification Void Warranty?

    My legalese isn't very good but this law has always seemed vague to me. Can I modify devices I bought and not void the warranty? How far can I modify them? Can I buy an Xbox, remove the components, and fill the case with oatmeal?

    If a modification can void a warranty, then can't it be argued that removing/puncturing those stickers counts as a modification?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Toom1275 (profile), 11 Apr 2018 @ 4:10pm

      Re: Can A Modification Void Warranty?

      The way I heard it, the burden of proof is on the manufacturer to prove that any issue with modified hardware was caused by the modification, and therefore not covered by warranty, rather than otherwise.

      The example I saw used:
      Say you installed a new set of speakers in your car.
      It would be illegal for the manufacturer to say that doing so voided your warranty, therefore they won't service your engine.
      However, if the problem was that your speakers blew out, they might have a case for refusing.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Apr 2018 @ 5:40pm

      Re: Can A Modification Void Warranty?

      Can I buy an Xbox, remove the components, and fill the case with oatmeal?

      The warranty on the rest of it should still be okay as long as it's not damaged by static electricity or whatever. Keep in mind, however, that a gutted Xbox case has many large openings and would therefore be bad at storing oatmeal.

      More seriously, you can swap out your harddrive for a larger model. If the software doesn't work anymore, that's your problem; if the CPU dies for unrelated reasons in a month MS can't deny the warranty because of it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 11 Apr 2018 @ 4:52pm

    "Warranty void if removed" stickers illegal since the 70's!?

    YOU GODDAMN BASTARDS!

    I've been a sucker all this time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 11 Apr 2018 @ 5:45pm

    The funny part is...

    Most warranties are about worthless anyway. Ever tried to warranty your "70,000 mile" tires?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Apr 2018 @ 7:21pm

      Re: The funny part is...

      You evidently don't know the purpose of a warranty. A warranty assures the product is free from manufacturing defects. It does not cover wear and tear through normal use.

      Trying to claim a 70,000 mile tyre on warranty is like trying to claim an empty printer cartridge on warranty. You used it, it's reached the end of its useful life. No warranty on that. Not unless there was a defect like a crack in the tyre that caused it to wear down faster, or a hole in the printer cartridge that caused it to leak.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Cheapskate, 12 Apr 2018 @ 4:00pm

      Warranties often work--create a "lifetime warranty" file folder

      To counter the cynicism that creeps into us from time to time, allow me to relate the times that my warranties did work:

      1) I purchased a Fisher Space Pen at an "antique" shop with an ink cartride over 20 years old. The chrome metal shell separated from the brass innards in use. I wrote Fischer that I was not the original owner and that I only paid a few dollars but asked if the lifetime warranty applied. Two weeks later, received a new ($35) pen with fresh ink and a second refill with a nice letter saying the old pen was not repairable.

      2) Duracell batteries leaked in two diving flashlights. I wrote that I probably got the batteries from a dollar store, so I couldn't be entirely sure they were genuine, but they looked legit. They sent me $75.

      3) In the 2000s, a circa 1990 Brookstone mechanical dial tire pressure gauge became erratic. The Brookstone manager required a sales receipt for an exchange. Slightly irritated, I went home to my file of "lifetime warranty receipts" and found the faded slip. Got a new one.

      4) Bought a $30 Rubbermaid trash can with a 10-year warranty. At eight years, the bottom corner cracked in the winter. I might have needed to send a photo with the receipt, but I got back a check for 90% of the retail price of a new can.

      5) An evil spirit infects my iPhone 5s. (I'm a fanboy, and everybody knows Apple products don't get viruses, right?) It's really hot to the touch with no apps running, so I put it between two blocks of Blue-ice from the freezer to avoid thermal runaway and battery damage. I make an appointment and the Apple store rules out a short circuit and re-flashes the device and installs the latest OS version for free.

      6) Chromebook dies after three years of hard use. I buy a new one, different brand. I click on a bad link--the URL includes tons of diamonds (unicode?) and the tab crashes. I use the hot key to report that I had this bug on my first Chromebook but it was fixed. I think I allowed my system to attach a crash dump to the error report so they'd have something to debug. The newer Chromebook is on a different code family that lacks the fix. Three days later, Google pushes down an update. Yes, I suppose it's "just" a back port, but still.

      7) My local optician cheerfully replaces nose pads whenever I break them--even for glasses he didn't sell me.

      8) My year-old Felt-brand commuting bicycle cranks deformed so the pedals were not at 180 degrees to each other. To scan traffic, I'd stand on the pedals like a meerkat and that stresses the crank. Also I'm big. Not "maybe I should skip desert" big, but rather, "holy crap, how did you split the split the seat on an office chair" big. Still, I'm within the bike's weight limit. The crank carried Shimano's long warranty and the bike shop installs it for free, even outside the bike warranty.

      9) Costco deserves special mention. A laptop square-bracket keycap flies off during the no-questions-asked warranty period. (Programming--lots of arrays.) They looked at the keycap for all of two seconds, compared serial numbers and cut a check for the full purchase price.

      Bought a wooden bunk bed (over 15 years ago.) Smelled like varnish a year after purchase. I suppose the finish just didn't cook. Without the box, a receipt or any record of our purchase in the Costco computer, they refunded what we thought we paid for it--about $300.

      10) Honda seat belt retention springy thing failed to retract the seatbelt. The car is below the 50,000 miles safety equipment warranty--so it's fixed free. Same for the Takada airbags--fixed free in a 10-year old car.

      11) Sony LCD TV--a $2,200 46" TV--wowser! Ten (?) years in, the electronics started getting wonky. Sony came to my house and plopped a refurbished set on my stand for free under an almost secret warranty, found by Googling the symptom online. Still runs over 5 years later.

      12) Showing my age here. Bought Yamaha headphones in the 1970s with $80 of hard-earned newspaper delivery money. To put that price in perspective--a loaf of bread in 1978 cost--oh, never mind. One audio channel goes, Yamaha fixes it for shipping and handling. I gave it away fifteen years later.

      So warranties work if you favor companies that offer them and make things that can be repaired:

      I once built a PC simply because every component--CPU to power supply came with a 3-year warranty rather than the 1 year that typical assembled PCs have.

      For laptops, I favor companies that publish their "service manuals" with diagrams of all the internal parts with part numbers for ordering. (HP shines in this regard.)

      This stuff is better built because they know they'll eventually pay for defects.

      Asking sales people which products "don't come back a lot" and what domain professionals, rich, busy, time-more-valuable-than-money people buy is also a good way to supplement the data you get from Consumer Reports.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 11 Apr 2018 @ 6:10pm

    Until the cost of stickering > following the law it will continue.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Apr 2018 @ 7:24pm

    Typo or limit variance?

    The FTC quote says: "...any consumer device that costs more than $15..."
    A later paragraph says: "...retails for more than $5..."
    Fifteen vs. five - typo or different contexts with different limits?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 20 May 2018 @ 10:13pm

    Hah!

    ASUS just sent me an update to their warranty TOS. References to warranty seals and tampering by non-authorized personnel have been removed.

    Thanks, FTC, I guess.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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