Yes, you have to read it — and understand it — to avoid future headaches.
By Janet Groene, F47166
I hadn’t visited a bank in person in years, but my recent stop was well worth the time. After spending an hour with a customer service representative, I had one new account, better terms for two former accounts, an earful of firsthand information, and 18 single-spaced pages of mind-numbing fine print explaining the bank’s rules, disclosures, and exclusions.
Full-timers are easy targets for a fast shuffle. It’s not really fraud. After all, it’s all there in black and white. Small type is everywhere, from government regulations to websites, warranties, services, and even the most innocent disclosures, agreements, and waivers.
Much of the legal mumbo jumbo is governed by state law, and the law may not be what you think. If your home base is in New York and you sign something in Florida with a company based in Virginia and insured in Massachusetts, and you are in Texas by the time you make a claim, things can become incredibly complicated.
Begin with banking.For starters, here are just a few fees charged by one major national bank. They are listed in fine print, but you probably won’t know about them until you trigger them and they appear on your statement. At this bank, you’ll pay $5 to replace a lost ATM card, but $15 for rush delivery of that card. For nonnetwork withdrawals, the fee is as much as $10, a shocker to the unwary traveler. Customers pay $3 a month for copies of canceled checks or deposit slips, $35 for an overdraft or returned check, $10 to transfer funds from one account to another, and so on.
The only bright spot is that some fees or penalties can be waived if you’re a regular customer or a rare offender, and can navigate the phone tree all the way to a live person. Sometimes it’s worth making a call and offering an apology in hopes of getting a refund.
True stories.These anecdotes about the dangers of ignoring fine print were sent to me via email. If you want to share yours, send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or forward it to me via postal mail in care of this magazine. Some details have been masked or changed slightly to protect identities, but the core lesson is the same. No matter where you are, read and understand the fine print.
- A full-timer couple hired a photographer to shoot a large family reunion at a resort campground. For many attendees, the site was half a continent away from home, so it was clear there would never be a do-over of this day. The photographer’s contract allowed for an “acceptable substitute” in case of illness or other emergency. Then the photographer got sick, sent in a less-experienced shooter, and the result was a disaster. Photos were not taken, were lost, or were of poor quality.
The photographer refused to back down, and the full-timers decided to move on rather than stay in the area and go to court. They know now that hazy words like “acceptable substitute” can be a trap.
- An automatic-renewal clause caught one full-timer in a costly web. As a volunteer for a nonprofit organization, he relies heavily on a telephone contract that is written in a state he never visits. Buried in fine print on the third page of the eight-page contract was the requirement that he notify the company if he didn’t intend to renew at the end of the term. The fine print also stated that the company was permitted to roll over the contract without informing him.
He missed the date, and the contract automatically renewed for another three years. He was stuck. “In some states, automatic renewal provisions are not enforceable,” he said. However, he had contracted with a company located in a state that allows automatic renewal without consumers’ knowledge or consent.
- An active full-timer took a free class at a fitness facility that is part of a national chain. In haste, he signed a contract, thinking that the membership would be useful as he traveled. “I figured I could cancel after a few months if it didn’t work out with my schedule,” he said. “When I called to cancel, I was told I had a one-year contract and would be taken to court if I stopped payments. I cringe every time I see that automatic deduction each month.”
- How do you define the term “as is”? A full-timer signed a short-term apartment lease while having her motorhome renovated. One clause indicated that she was accepting the unit “as is.” The landlord contended that this included months of unpaid back rent from previous tenants. “I took the matter to court and won, but I was definitely almost bamboozled by fine print,” she said.
- Medical contracts are another headache for full-timers. “I went to a doctor and confirmed with the woman at the desk that my referral had arrived,” one traveler reported. “She made me sign a form stating I was responsible for bills not paid by insurance. The claim was denied because that referral actually had not arrived. A month down the road, I received a bill for $400. The doctor’s office said I’d signed the agreement and was required to pay.”
Advice about fine print. Kari Luckett, editor for the credit card comparison website CompareCards.com, offers this tip: “(If you’re) looking over the fine print online, copy and paste the terms and conditions into a Word document and highlight the most important sections or information. Then, perform a search of the document for (words such as) rewards program, interest, fees, and charges. If you’re reading fine print that comes in the mail, I suggest grabbing a highlighter to mark the most important areas.”
Chantay Bridges, a writer, speaker, and Realtor in Los Angeles, advises:
- Understand the terminology. For example, when requesting your credit report, you’ll see the terms VantageScore and FICO score. If you don’t understand the difference, reading the fine print won’t matter.
- Ask a professional such as a lawyer, Realtor, or an expert on the topic. If you don’t know anyone, search key words online and attempt to translate what’s there.
- Take a document apart line by line. Once you are clear what is being said and what is not in a particular section, move on. Search for key words that may help interpret the fine print. Look for anything that later could cost you additional money or catch a consumer unaware — words such as fees, interest rates, costs, rate increases, etc. Does the advertisement say “free”? We all know nothing is really free. Look further to search out what the vendor gets out of this deal.
- Know whom you are doing business with. Is this agreement transferrable? Will a third party be involved? Who is the actual owner? Do they have the right to change the terms? How often?
Another suggestion comes from one of my column readers: “Practice before your deal. I have found that most fine print is boilerplate, so reading other contracts (such as those we all click past quickly on apps and software licenses) will help you see the big picture. Once you start to see the patterns common in most boilerplate fine print, you’ll be able to concentrate on the parts that are especially relevant to your deal.”
Bottom line.Take your time. Read the entire document — every line, and between the lines. Do your homework. Even if you read and understand those pages pertaining to your product or account, your rights and responsibilities likely also are affected by general provisions that appear on other pages. Don’t miss such points as definitions, exclusions, your privacy rights, and — very important to full-timers — unique features that apply to, or are excluded in, certain states.
It’s also useful to know all the names of the company you’re dealing with. Sometimes they’re buried deep within the document. Bob’s Wonder Warranty World may also do business as Bob’s World LLC and Bob’s Bait and Salvage LLC. Look for a disclosure statement listing all the company’s legal entities.