Illegal warranty voiding highlights need for FTC action

When consumers don’t have time to wait for authorized repair, they shouldn’t be faulted for finding alternatives.

When you buy a new device or appliance, you expect it to last a long time. Sometimes, it breaks too quickly, likely because of some defect or design flaw. This is why warranties exist: If something breaks within a specified time frame, the manufacturer takes responsibility for certain repairs. But what if you have to wait for weeks before your oven, refrigera tor, or smartphone receives authorized warranty service? 

A lot of people have been led to believe that if you open or repair a product yourself or seek “unauthorized” repair providers, you “void your warranty.” Many of us have seen the stickers on products, giving a warning message such as “warranty void if seal is broken.” Well, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) rules governing warranties, those stickers are illegal, and companies cannot automatically void warranties if you use an independent service. 

Despite this, companies routinely tell consumers that any “unauthorized” repair will void the warranty. This practice has been especially problematic during the COVID-19 pandemic. Repair needs have spiked, as we are home more and increasingly reliant on the technology in our homes to carry out essential activities. If the manufacturer has a backlog, it can be a major hassle to wait for authorized service.

“People like me kept people’s electronics working while Apple closed all their stores,” said Sam Mencimer, a 17-year-old repair shop owner, during a Maryland House committee hearing about a Right to Repair bill. “They were quoting four- to eight-week turnaround times for mail-in repairs, so I was fixing people’s devices that were under warranty because [they] couldn’t wait four to eight weeks for Apple to fix their stuff.”

Why voiding warranties for repair is illegal

The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act (MMWA) “generally prohibits warrantors from conditioning warranties on the consumer’s use of a replacement product or repair service identified brand or name.” In other words, a manufacturer cannot require that a consumer use brand-specified parts or services to keep their warranty intact, with a few exceptions outlined in our report.  

Nonetheless, during a 2018 study conducted by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, 45 out of the 50 surveyed appliance manufacturers voided warranties if product owners used independent or self-repair. Our report came just a few months after the FTC issued its warning to six companies for placing “void if removed” stickers on their products.

“The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act specifically precludes tying a warranty to use of specific or authorized parts and service. The FTC staff in 2018 gave specific guidance to companies and said ‘unless you meet one of the exceptions in the Magnuson-Moss Act, do not condition warranty coverage on consumers’ use of parts or service from you or someone you authorized,’” said Blake Reid, director of the Samuelson-Glushko Technology Law & Policy Clinic during a Colorado House committee bill hearing. Reid’s testimony attempted to rebut manufacturer claims that Right to Repair rules run afoul of federal warranty law. 

The reason a prohibition on voiding warranties for unauthorized repair is included in MMWA is to prevent “tying” conditions. You are not supposed to be able to use one sale to force, or “tie,” consumers into future connected services, such as repair. 

Since that 2018 FTC guidance, public efforts to address manufacturers who thwarted independent repair have seemed to reach a standstill. When the U.S. PIRG Education Fund released the results from a 2020 survey, we saw no improvement. Of the 43 companies we reached, all 43 indicated that they would consider voiding warranties for independent repair.

Warranties still in the void

Despite reading the previous report on warranty violations, I was shocked at what I found when I, along with report co-author Anne Marie Green, surveyed companies. 

Some had terms like this in their warranties:  

De’Longhi’s warranty, full text here

Mr. Coffee warranty, available here

For others, customer service asserted the warranties were conditioned against repair: 

Chats from customer service. Clockwise from top left: Bosch, Lasko, Keurig, Whirlpool, LG, Electrolux. 

The FTC must take public action and require manufacturers to make their warranties fully compliant with the MMWA. Since 2018, when the FTC issued warnings to manufacturers, there has been limited follow-up. Consumers have the right to demand better from their government. 

Broader acceptance of the Right to Repair is critical -- it restores consumers’ agency while allowing them to choose from a variety of local businesses. In this case, consumers have always had the opportunity to rely on independent repair people and fix-it shops within the warranty period, but barriers posed by manufacturers make this difficult.

Now, when the COVID-19 pandemic has put households -- and their technological devices -- under unprecedented stress, is the time for Americans to be given their Right to Repair.