Failure to read small print can cost $1000 a year
06 November, 2015
There is one big fat lie that even the most honest among us are guilty of telling on a regular basis: Yes, I have read the terms and conditions.
So often, when faced with screeds of fine print accompanying products and services, it is easier to just tick "Agree" or click "Accept", rather than actually reading it.
Every Apple user will be familiar with the messages that pop up on your iPad or iPhone stating "Before you can proceed you must read and accept the new Terms and Conditions." Who is going to read up to 56 pages of fine print, especially the important bits in capital letters which, because they are in capitals, are really hard to read?
However, as boring and time-consuming as it might be, we should take the time to read the fine print.
The terms and conditions of financial products should certainly be read carefully, every time, but even the seemingly innocuous fine print accompanying online apps can easily contain "gotchas" that you should be aware of.
When British computer game retailer GameStation embarked on an April Fool's Day gag, they provided a humorous and salutary example of why we should always read the terms associated with a product or service.
Hundreds of online shoppers who signed a GameStation contract on 1st April 2010, unwittingly granted the company the right to claim their soul. The immortal soul clause said "By placing an order via this website, you agree to grant us a non transferable option to claim, for now and forever more, your immortal soul." While all shoppers were given a simple tick box to opt out, very few did. The company subsequently emailed customers nullifying any claim on their soul … but a valuable lesson had been learned.
More recently, users of instant messaging app Snapchat received a scary Halloween surprise. The company updated its terms and conditions, giving the photo-sharing service almost limitless potential to do anything it wanted with users' pictures, videos and messages. Typically Snapchat users want to send something to someone else for a brief period of time, and want it to remain entirely private, so there was an irony to the company's new policy.
Other interesting quirks in the fine print of online services include the fact that Twitter has the right to use all your content, so literally everything you've ever tweeted can be republished, even if you close or deactivate your account. Facebook can also do whatever they want with your photos and information, and they have a right to use your data to "improve their services or conduct psychological studies". Really?
As for iTunes, regardless of how much money you spend on Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran tracks, you don't actually own any of the music or video – you are only paying for the right to watch or listen to that media.
Money Advice Service, a government-backed financial help centre in the UK claims that failure to read the small print is costing consumers an average of £428 ($978) a year. It surveyed 2,000 consumers and found that only 84% of people bothered to read the terms and conditions, and of those that did, only 17% understood what they had read.
It is important that we do bother, and that we attempt to understand what we read.
There is increasing pressure on companies to highlight the main snags and catches with their product, at the time it is purchased. This growing emphasis on consumer protection and transparency is ensuring that fewer of us are getting caught out by the fine print.
But at a minimum, we've got to read it!