When you buy a toaster or TV, or receive one as a gift, is it the manufacturer's business to ask about your income, education, hobbies, and car? Frankly, no. Nevertheless, many products include registration cards harvesting personal information that companies then sell to marketers. The companies get money; you get peppered with spam and sales pitches.
You might be intimidated into filling out the cards or registering online, fearing that the failure to do so will void your warranty rights. (At this time of year, when you might have just received a new small appliance or electronic gadget, our advice will come in particularly handy.)
The straight scoop. As a rule, that's wrong: A sales receipt should suffice if you need to file a warranty claim, according to the California-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer-education organization. No demographic or lifestyle info is necessary to register a product, yet registration cards usually don't say so. Instead, they often warn about the importance of filling out the card, implying that if you don't, you'll invalidate the warranty. Opt-out notices are usually vague and in small type.
Companies whose products have a limited warranty (the usual type) may ask consumers to complete warranty registrations, says Elizabeth Lordan, a spokeswoman for the Federal Trade Commission. But they must also tell them whether a returned card is required or optional, says Carolyn L. Carter, deputy director for advocacy at the National Consumer Law Center, a Boston-based nonprofit group. (Products with a full warranty, relatively rare, can't require registration as a condition of coverage.)
There is one advantage to registration: A company that has your name and contact information, and the product model and serial number, can reach you if the product is recalled. Many children's products must be accompanied by registration cards for that very reason, says Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Bottom line. Read a product's warranty to determine whether you're required to return the card. If so, provide only as much information as is necessary.
This article appeard in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.