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.

Filed Under: ftc, right to repair, warranties


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  1. 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.

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