So You Don't Read the Fine Print? Lose the Guilt

This article was originally published by Newhouse News Service on Tuesday, July 17, 2007.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2007 Newhouse News Service

By reading this story, you agree that it is for information purposes only, and not a substitute for legal advice. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, put down the newspaper and dial 911.

Did you read that first paragraph closely?

Millions of Americans routinely enter into contracts without even attempting to figure out the financial and legal strings attached.

Think about the multi-page document you signed blindly before taking home your new wireless gizmo, or the Web sites where you clicked "I agree" without scrolling down. Or the 6-point-font credit card forms, the endless liability waivers at amusement parks, the tiny brochure glued to your new prescription bottle.

"Less than 20 percent of consumers make an effort to read the fine print," said Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a Charleston, S.C., marketing firm that regularly surveys buyer behavior.

The main excuses: I won't understand the legalese. I don't have time. I can't change what the contract says, so what's the point?

This alarms consumer advocates, who say companies are using fine print to take away rights as vital as free speech and a jury trial.

But we're not going to scold. You can go home to mom for that. Instead, here's some praise: You're sensible to sign without reading at least most of the time.

"We encounter scores of forms every day; it would be a ridiculous expenditure of time to read all of them," said William Woodward, a law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. "The economy would go in the toilet."

In fact, ignoring the fine print can help you. Judges have ruled against consumers because they admitted having read an agreement, including onerous provisions, Woodward said. And in some cases, courts have held that individuals didn't truly consent to a contract because they had no opportunity to negotiate the terms.

The first thing to understand is that a contract is not law.

"It doesn't mean anything until a judge interprets the language," said David Rossmiller, a lawyer in Portland, Ore. A court could throw out certain provisions as unconscionable or contrary to public policy, for instance.

Corporate lawyers write contracts to protect businesses and limit litigation perfectly sensible goals that reduce the cost of products and services. But they also know that complex agreements can discourage individuals who have a legitimate gripe with the company.

"A lot of wronged consumers do walk away because they get scared. A lot of people get bullied into paying," said Jason Archinaco, a lawyer with White and Williams in Pittsburgh. "At some point you say, have we not crossed the line?"

Increasingly, companies use contract terms to impose severe obligations on customers, often to a ridiculous degree, said Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Some examples:

Software in cars' GPS displays requires you to click through disclaimers while driving, before the map appears.

Cruise ship agreements call on customers to resolve any dispute by flying at their own expense to the cruise line's hometown, often Miami.

Provisions waive the right to trial by jury, or agree to arbitration in a venue unsympathetic to customers.

A prohibition on criticizing a product, such as in the license to Microsoft's Windows Vista software.

It's not just individuals who are inhibited. Some independent research labs were afraid to publish reviews of Vista because of the "censorship clause" in the license, said Ed Foster, author of the Gripelog, based in Boulder Creek, Calif.

So what can you do in response?

For a time, Woodward sent revised terms of service back to the companies with which he did business. But almost every monthly bill comes with a flurry of new agreements and revised paperwork, in theory nullifying whatever he had previously mailed.

Some respond with humor. One Web site is selling the "Liabili-T," a shirt imprinted with the message: "Any disclaimer of liability notwithstanding, management, by serving me, accepts legal responsibility for any losses to my person or property that result from my use of this establishment."

Others recommend pushing back when companies attempt to hold you to contract terms you find unreasonable or feel weren't fully disclosed.

"My stock phrase for any consumer is: `The fact that you're not refunding my money makes it obvious that you're doing this to a lot of people,"' said Archinaco. "When you add up a million consumers, you see a large amount of money and a profit center created by the company."

Sometimes, only the threat of a class action lawsuit will make big business back off. But often, the company finds it cheaper to give in than to put up with a persistent, disgruntled customer.

"It makes more sense to them financially not to waste their time with you," said Aliza Schechet, a lawyer in Washington, D.C. "I've gotten out of a lot of stuff just by being annoying."

But before you get carried away, there are some times when you SHOULD read the fine print.

It's worth it to examine any agreement that involves a large amount of money or a long period of time, such as a home mortgage, insurance contract, car lease, even a long-term cell phone contract.

"The difference between two different financing options can mean hundreds of dollars," noted Ronald Coleman, a lawyer with Bragar Wexler & Eagel in Newark, N.J.

Be especially alert to contract terms that require you to pay attorneys fees, agree to arbitration, or settle a dispute in a distant place, Coleman said.

And deal with companies you trust, Foster said. Fly-by-night operations have infected a lot of computers with spyware because unwitting Web surfers turn over control with a quick click on "I agree."