Look out for Sneaky Contract Terms

I recently came across a magazine article that goosed me into writing about something that has rankled me for a long time. I guess I had to come across this issue elsewhere before I heard my internal wake-up call to write about this issue.

I’m talking about the one-sided contracts with unconscionable clause that most of us sign because we are – or perceive ourselves to be – powerless. The worst of the worst are arbitration clauses. If you want to open a bank account, use an Internet service, or sign onto Netflix, you’ll probably have to agree to a clause that says if you have a dispute with the company, you agree to take it to arbitration, often an arbitration company selected by the vendor. The problem is that arbitrators are notorious for siding with the parties that give them the most business. And that ain’t likely to be you. Adding insult to injury, you may have to share in paying the arbitrators’ fees.

A typical contract arbitration clause

Arbitration clause. photo- CreditInfocenter.com

Recently, each time I logged onto Netflix I saw a banner at the top of the page telling me to read and agree to a change in the Netflix contract. I read the change. It was a requirement that all disputes be settled by arbitration. So I ignored it. The notice was there each time I logged on. After a while I was warned that time is running out. So I let time run out. I never agreed and the banners went away. I guess Netflix would rather have the business of those who wouldn’t agree than lose them as customers. After all, they know we can visit our local Redbox.Here are some tricks you can try to avoid arbitration requirements. If you must agree to an online contract, go ahead. Then email the company’s customer service department and tell them you rescind your agreement to subject disputes to arbitration and that you reserve your right to take disputes to court. Send the email from your own email account; not the company’s “Contact Us” link, and keep a copy of your message. If you don’t hear back, you may be in good shape. If they send you an “either, or” response, you’ll have to make a choice.If you are signing a paper contract, cross out and initial the arbitration clause. If they don’t notice the change, you may be in like Flynn.If you receive a contract by email that you are to print, sign and mail back, yahoo! (Not the Internet service provider – just old fashioned “yahoo.”) Delete the arbitration clause, print the contract, and sign it, and mail it in, keeping a copy for yourself. If the company doesn’t notice the change, too bad for them.  It should have read it before it signed. Just make sure you get a returned copy signed by the appropriate company official. If they can try to slip one by you … turnabout is fair play.

Has your bank, brokerage, credit card company, cable TV provider or any other business ever slipped a little sheet into your statement or bill that notifies you of changes in the terms of your agreement? Read it! If you don’t like what you read, call the company and tell it how you feel. If necessary, take your business elsewhere. If the change of terms is significant, it could give you a way out of your contract with your cellular service company, Internet provider, or the like.

I’ll finish with this. When you get a bill for any utility service that is not a government sanctioned monopoly, like for instance, your electricity provider, check the fees on the statement. There may be a lot of small dings on the bill for just pennies or dimes. Call the utility and ask them to explain each fee and whether it is required by the government as a tax or fee. Many may not be. If so, it’s time to negotiate including the polite threat to take our business elsewhere. Think about it this way: If they say your service (exclusive of taxes and government fees) costs 50 bucks, but they are charging you $54, that’s a four-dollar, or 8 percent – rip-off. While the service provider may not reduce those fees, you threat to leave may prompt them to offer you an extra goodie at no charge. Recently, when I threatened to leave my cable company, the phone rep called me back and offered a “tier” upgrade and a 10 dollar monthly price reduction for six months.

Remember my motto: “Whoever holds the money, has the power.”

 

 

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