January 5, 2007

How to get a Windows tax refund

Author: Serge Wroclawski

If you buy a computer, you often pay for Microsoft Windows even if you didn't ask for it and aren't going to use it. This article shows you how to return your unused Windows license and get your money back, freeing yourself from the Windows tax.

I recently purchased a new laptop computer from Dell. As a GNU/Linux user and believer in Free Software, I knew from the start that I wasn't going to run Microsoft Windows. Unfortunately, Dell didn't offer this laptop with Ubuntu or a no-OS option, so I tried getting my Windows refund from Dell after the purchase. After working with customer service, I received a refund of $52.50. In the course of getting my refund, I found some techniques worked better than others. By knowing what works, you may be able to get your refund quickly and easily.

Be prepared and set realistic expectations

Before you go down this route, be prepared. Getting your Windows refund may take several hours of work, after which you'll get a small amount of money -- nowhere near the full retail price of Windows on the store shelf. Though your win may be more of a victory for principle than your pocketbook, it is possible to win, and you'll have made an important stand.

Getting a Windows refund only works if your computer is new. If you've booted into Windows once and hit the Accept button at the end of the Microsoft EULA, you're disqualified. Ideally you'll plan on getting your Windows refund before placing your order with the vendor. If you are ordering a new machine, first call the vendor to see if they offer a no-OS option. If they do, use it. If the machine does not come without an installed OS and you have to buy Windows, purchase the lowest-end Windows that you can. In my case, that meant buying the computer with Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition.

When your computer arrives, document each step of unloading your computer. I took a tip from UK reporter Dave Mitchell, who received a Windows refund from Dell, and took pictures of myself at each step of the process, including opening the box and each and every page of the Microsoft EULA. I zoomed in on the relevant section about returning the license to the vendor. I also zoomed in on the radio button which says "Do Not Accept" and showed myself rejecting the license. This will add some time to your initial computer use, but is proof that you read and rejected the license.

Before you make the call, have everything you need in front of you. You should have all the details of your order, including the order number, date purchased, and even your credit card number. You should have the computer's serial number and, in the case of Dell, its
Express Service Code. Later in the process, you may need your Windows Certificate of Authenticity (COA) key. It's on the holographic label
usually found on the bottom of the laptop. You might find it easier to just have the laptop itself handy.

You'll also want to have the text of the EULA ready. You probably don't need the entire thing, but the specific wording about returning
Windows to the vendor may become key.

Lastly, you're going to want to have a pen and paper ready. If your phone is wireless, you'll want to be sure it's fully charged, and
keep a beverage handy -- you could be on the phone a while.

Preparing for the call

By this time in the process, you're probably itching to get on the phone, get on your soapbox, and get your refund. Resist the urge.
Remember that you're looking to exercise a legal right. You're not going to change anyone's mind about Free Software, and any extra time
you spend in the process only takes you further from your goal.

Be polite. A customer service representative is used to handling dozens of issues a day, but your issue is going to be outside the norm.
The person on the other end of the phone is your representation on the company's side, so you want to keep him or her as happy as possible.
Don't get angry, don't yell, don't be rude. If things become tense, disarm the situation with kindness, and, if it's appropriate, a
joke.

You will be put on hold. Dell is fairly good about not leaving folks on hold (especially business customers), but I was put on hold a
number of times. There's nothing you can do about it, so just be polite and accept it. What you're asking for is so unusual that they'll
probably need to call supervisors. Let them.

Expect excuses. They're going to look for ways not to give you the refund. After all, they've never heard of this, so it must be
impossible. My first customer service rep said that he couldn't refund my license because I wasn't charged for it. If you hear something
like this, don't be discouraged, and don't take it as the final word. I'll tell you how to counter these sorts of arguments in a
moment.

Don't argue, escalate. If you find you're not getting anywhere with your customer service representative, or you're going over the same
point several times, it's time to escalate. Remember our previous guideline of not being rude. You can ask to be transferred without making
it into a confrontation. Be sympathetic: "I see that you're trying your best, but that you're not able to do anything else for me. Would it
be possible for you to transfer me to someone else?"

Be persistent. You'll probably have to speak with several people, repeat yourself, and hear lots of excuses about how you're not
entitled to what you're asking for. You're in the right, and as long as you're in the pipeline, you're making progress. When you're not
making any more progress, escalate.

Don't settle. At several points in my communications with customer service, I was offered coupons, even in excess of what I was asking
for, but coupons aren't money. Politely explain that you're looking for a refund in cash (or credit back to your credit card).

Use the precedents. If you're in the UK, you can mention reporter Dave Mitchell as someone whose already received a Windows refund. If
you're in the US, you can use me. If they've given refunds to the two of us, why not you?

During the call, you may find that the customer service representative will come back to you with several excuses about why you're not
entitled to your refund. I've compiled a list of them, some which I heard and others which I didn't, and good responses to them.

"You can't return the operating system because the computer can't work without it."

That's the easiest argument to counter. Explain that you run GNU/Linux (or FreeBSD, or whatever operating system you've replaced Windows
with).

"You didn't pay anything for Windows."

Since the price of Windows was included in the price of the computer, they may try to argue that you didn't pay anything for it. This
one is easy to debunk. Windows costs money -- everyone knows that. Once you establish that Windows does indeed cost money (and you can't
get it for free) then the only remaining issue is how much you paid. Since Microsoft contracts out with hardware vendors, there's no actual
way to know how much Windows costs a given retailer. This being the case, I was asking for the price of an OEM copy of Windows XP Home SP2
that I found on Newegg, which was $89. In the end they gave me $52.50. I don't know if this is really how much Windows costs, but it's a
non-trivial amount and I can well imagine that one of the world's largest computer makers can get a good deal on Windows licenses from
Microsoft.

"You bought the bundle."

They may tell your purchase was a bundle, that Windows came on the computer as a packaged set and you can't return one without the
other. What you have on your side to counter this is the license itself, which says that you may choose to not accept the license and
return it to the vendor. No matter what they say regarding a bundle, the legal wording of the license is clear. I heard the B word several
times, and each time I explained the terms of the license to them, with the license wording at hand in case I needed to quote it verbatim.
If the customer representative tries to cut the conversation short saying it's a bundle, stay polite, but explain that the license is quite
clear and that you're just going by the legal wording and exercising your right to return the operating system.

"How about a coupon?"

I was offered coupons several times. I'm guessing that coupons are easy to give to customers as a way to keep them happy. While you're
rejecting the coupons, realize that this is a small victory. All you have to do at that point is ask for cash.

"You need to return the CD."

As a condition to getting my Windows refund, I was required to give the COA key to the customer representative and return the Windows CD
itself. Dell was kind enough to pay for shipping of the CD, so all I had to pay for was the envelope. Your vendor may not be as generous
regarding the shipping, but by this time, you've won.

You win - or not

If you're not working with Dell, you may not have the same success. In this case, you might need to take another tack. Small claims court may be an option. You file paperwork with the court, pay a small
fee, and show up in court with all your documentation. You'll need to make your case quickly and succinctly. You may also want to contact
the Better Business Bureau for help. Many reputable businesses take the BBB seriously and may be more willing to work with you after it has
contacted them. In any case, you'll be spending time and money to resolve the issue, but so will the vendor, so they're likely to look for
an amiable solution as quickly as possible.

To summarize:

  • You're only eligible for a refund on new computers
  • Document everything
  • Be prepared
  • Be polite
  • Be persistent
  • Be gracious

If you follow these guidelines, you're likely to come out with a working computer without the Windows tax.

I would be remiss if I did not offer a special thank you to Dell. Despite my initial difficulties, Dell eventually came through. After
hearing stories on the Net about folks having to bring their vendor to small claims court, I'm happy I picked a company with reasonable
policies and people. I especially want to thank Seema, the floor manager who worked with me on my case and offered me the refund.