Read the fine print: 4 ways you sign away your rights
NEW YORK– There’s a lot of fine print in our lives.
When you open a bank account, log onto a website, accept a job, buy an app or open a cell phone contract, you agree to terms that can carry some hefty implications.
While you should read the fine print before you agree, that’s much easier said than done.
These agreements can be several pages long and are often laden with legal jargon that can be hard to understand.
“It’s really hard to be a consumer these days,” said Ira Rheingold, executive director at the National Association of Consumer Advocates. “The courts have done a lot of damage to consumers by not creating a standard to what are the fair terms of a contract.”
Here’s a look at some of the rights you might be giving up when agreeing to some terms and agreements:
Your day in court
Forced arbitration has become common in contracts, which means customers often can’t sue a company in court.
“They are in just about every financial contract,” said Lauren Saunders, associate director at the National Consumer Law Center. “Most people have no idea that they are giving up their day in court.”
Opponents of forced arbitration clauses argue that consumers are often at a disadvantage because it can be more expensive, an arbitrator might be more partial to the party more likely to bring in future business and it’s harder to appeal a decision.
Employers can also use arbitration clauses to prevent employees from suing over work-related issues.
Companies are also preventing consumers from joining together in a lawsuit.
“They are telling people they can’t be part of class action lawsuit, that people will have to go into one by one into a secretive and bias process,” said Saunders.
Just by using or logging on to a website can mean you agree to the company’s terms and conditions, said Dan Lear, director of industry relations at Avvo and contract law expert.
That means that consumers could be giving up their privacy rights.
“Compared to Europe, the U.S. has far fewer restrictions when it comes to how companies can handle your personal data,” said Rohit Chopra, a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America. “Many consumers are unaware of how their data will be used or resold.”
How much you really owe
Banks make a lot of money from fees.
In fact, America’s three biggest banks racked in more than $6.4 billion last year from ATM and overdraft fees.
It can be hard for consumers to avoid these fees because they aren’t always easy to find.
“When you wind up with late fees, it may be some overdraft fee, a minimum deposit amount fee, you wrote too many checks fee, there’s a lot of stuff in the fine print that can add additional fees that can cost people,” said Rheingold.
How much you can get in damages
If you do find something wrong with a product, businesses can place a limit on the amount of damages you can collect, experts said.
“When it comes to products, its more about waivers of liability and limiting damages,” said Rheingold.
The expanding limitations included in contracts and terms of service has caused Americans’ trust in corporate America to erode, said Chopra.
“It’s a way for companies to reject the ethos that the customer is always right and I think fine print is often a way to give companies plausible deniability that they aren’t breaking the law.”