It’s an old joke: The large print giveth and the fine print taketh away. But when it’s your money or your privacy being ripped off, the joke isn’t so funny. So what exactly does the term “fine print” mean in today’s world? Webster says it is “something thoroughly and often deliberately obscure. Especially: a part of an agreement or document spelling out restrictions and limitations often in small type or obscure language.”
Fine print is not just a contemporary issue. While the precise origins of the term fine print are murky, some academics have traced the first written use of the term to an 1892 newspaper article. However, it is likely that the practice of fine print buried in an agreement pre-dates that reference by decades and maybe even centuries. (Perhaps there was less fine print when contracts had to be chiseled out on a stone tablet.)
With the advent of online activity the practice of including fine print has exploded beyond just written agreements. Today all kinds of documents are chock-full of fine print. Buried in the language are legal words and phrases that can cost you your privacy, your rights, or your hard earned money. Here are some contract and service agreement phrases that you should be wary of:
“Free” There is no such thing as a free lunch. Maybe the product is “free” now, but the fine print is obligating you to pay later. Or it could be a situation when you what they are selling is you—that is your information is being harvested to be sold to marketers who will pester you with ads.
“Free trial” How good is your memory? Thousands of companies are wagering that your memory is shaky. When they have phrases like “We will not charge your credit card until after your free 60 day trial”, it means they are betting you will forget to cancel at 59 days. Businesses do this because they know they win this bet more often than not.
“Automatically renews” The fellow traveler of the “free trial”, “automatically renews” is also known as a self-renewal or evergreen clause. But by whatever name, it means you keep paying forever unless you provide a notice to terminate within a specific and typically relatively small window of time—for example, 30 days prior to the end of the contract term. If you want the convenience of self-renewal, that’s fine. Just don’t forget about the agreement. If you keep a long-term calendar, post a reminder to yourself about the renewal well in advance of the date when some action on your part is required.
“Late Fees” Most of us are guilty of not paying much attention to the fine print about late fees. We think they will never apply to us, but they often do. At one time or another we all have memory lapses and may miss a payment date or two. The penalty for being human shouldn’t be excessive.
“Restocking fee” In this age of seemingly endless shopping options we always assume the seller—whether on the web or in a brick and mortar store—will have a liberal return policy. Many do, but some will charge a restocking fee that can be steep, or they will deduct shipping costs from your refund, or maybe not allow returns at all. It is wise when buying anything (and especially when purchasing a big ticket item) to familiarize yourself with the seller’s return policies.
“Extended warranty” In the opinion of many consumer advocates extended warranties are of dubious value. But what can be worse is when a seller sneaks an extended warranty into the fine print of an agreement. The solution: read the fine print and challenge the inclusion of an extended warranty if you don’t want it. If the seller won’t delete the extended warranty, take your business elsewhere.
“Hold harmless and indemnify us” Be very wary when you see this phrase. In the event of a lawsuit these words can potentially obligate you to pay the company’s legal fees
In this era of “big data”, “data brokers” and “data mining” the personal information that we give away every day is being transformed into a valuable commodity. If you object to having your personal information bartered away, here a few fine print terms to be on the guard for:
“Opt out” Just as companies assume we will have poor memories they also assume we are pretty casual about accepting standard terms of service, most of which give companies the right to use our personal information however they see fit. You can usually “opt out” to stop the collection of your data, but you have to scroll through the fine print to learn how to “opt out”.
“Third party” Imagine you are at Bed, Bath, and Beyond and someone comes up to sell you tires for your car. That is exactly how third party data works. A party you are doing business with sells your personal information to a third party who then bombards you with unsolicited email, junk mail, and even phone calls. Many free offers are just bait for collecting your private information to sell to a third-party.
“To serve you better we want to learn more about your interests” This phrase sounds benign, even caring—“Gosh, they want to get to know me.” What they really want is even more personal information from you so they can get more money from data marketers who will then target you with more advertising.