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Most don’t read the fine print. Here’s what to look for before buying.


Advertisements, service contracts, warranties — all are riddled with enough disclaimers and legal footnotes to make your eyes blur. That is, if you can even read the fine print without a magnifying glass.

But there is important information buried in that fine print on containers, labels and web posts, much of it in coded language without specific details. Consumers must figure out what all of those terms really mean, or they could end up facing fees or conditions that they didn’t anticipate.

“In an ideal world, we would read it all, but rarely do we have time to decipher it or do much about it,” says Nicholas Creel, an assistant professor of business law at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, Ga.

This may or may not present a problem, says Andrew Forman, an associate professor of marketing at Hofstra University’s Frank G. Zarb School of Business in Hempstead, N.Y. “The fine print is sometimes innocuous and other times comes up to the line of negating the offer.”

How can consumers protect themselves? Atlanta attorney Brad Elbein, a former regional director of the Federal Trade Commission, reads the fine print on every contract, but most of us have neither the time nor patience for that. And even if we do read everything, there’s no guarantee we’ll understand all the ins and outs.

At minimum, experts say, skim the fine print. Keep an eye out for asterisks (*) or superscript numbers or letters. “That’s there to modify the statement being made and send you to information to illuminate or obscure the information given,” says Elbein, a specialist in consumer protection law. If you see that asterisk but no additional information, walk away. Also be on the lookout for these words and phrases, which could be a sign of a “gotcha” buried in the offer.

“Our affiliates” or “our partners.” These phrases indicate that the company is going to not only flood you with unsolicited mail, email and texts but also sell your data to other companies with whom it has a tangential relationship and who will do the same.

“Third party.” This term is even broader in scope than “our affiliates.” In this case, the company can sell your personal data to any willing buyer. Love that new smartphone app that monitors your heart rate and pulse or clocks your daily steps? Are you willing to share your health habits with your insurance company?

“While supplies last.” Beware of this sign of a bait-and-switch. You go to the store for the item on sale. The staff says it’s out of stock, but here is an alternative — at full price.

What questions do you have about taking care of your home?

“Introductory offer.” Similar to “free trial,” this term is found in apps and services with a subscription model. The first six months of internet service are a sweet $10.99 per month, then it jumps to $60. And odds are that canceling will be a hassle as you navigate phone menus or pushy salespeople trying to persuade you to stay.

“Automatic renewal.” This phrase is the ultimate gotcha. You sign an agreement, then it stays in effect each time the term ends unless you explicitly cancel it, even if you no longer want or use the subscription, membership or service. And that contract might renew at a much higher price than what you initially signed up for.

“Deferred interest.” The difference between a deferred-interest agreement and one that proclaims “no interest” can be confusing to consumers. Both are common terms used in agreements for appliance and furniture purchases and involve a set period — two years, for example — during which you can pay down a balance on an item without accruing interest. If you haven’t paid off the full amount by the end of the agreement, in both cases you will start being charged interest. But, Forman says, with deferred interest, “if you owe at the end of the period, you are on the hook for all of the interest accrued during the two years.” In a no-interest agreement, you don’t owe interest on that initial two years.

“Class-action waiver.” If your child’s swing set falls apart after six months, it may not be worth it to sue the company. Instead, you might band together with others to file a class-action lawsuit. This clause in a contract forces you to forgo that option.

“All sales final.” Sellers use this phrase to keep you from returning a product. However, Creel says, while you can’t simply change your mind, if you buy a vacuum cleaner and it’s defective, you can bring it back to the retailer. Your compensation depends on the word …

“Nonrefundable.” Even when a company won’t refund your money, if you return a defective product, it should replace the item or give you store credit.

“Restocking fee.” Returns are free, but the fee to put the item back in inventory may be up to 20 percent of the item’s price. Companies can have any sales policy if it is posted in a clear and conspicuous manner, says Elbein. If you like to test-drive electronic devices, you may want to buy from a seller that doesn’t charge this fee.

“Mandatory arbitration.” If you have a beef with a company or are injured by a product, you waive the right to sue. Instead, you must enter into arbitration. Almost always, the seller picks the place and hires the people to hear your case and decide how to resolve it. While this should be an unbiased process, remember who is paying the arbitrator.

“Opt out.” This phrase means that, unless you tell the company otherwise, it can use your information however it wishes. The onus is on the consumer to take the initiative to keep the data private. Typically the option to opt out appears when you sign up for a service or register to make a purchase and are being bombarded with questions and check boxes, says Creel.

“Voids warranty.” If you do anything on the void list, warranty coverage is canceled. For instance, if you have your smartphone repaired at an unauthorized facility or try to do it yourself, the seller or manufacturer may no longer stand behind the product, even if you are dealing with a new issue.

“After rebate.” This advertising come-on makes you think you are getting a good deal, but you pay for the product and receive the rebate only after the purchase is complete. Rebates are cumbersome, with a list of instructions and requirements such as proof of purchase, original receipt and product codes, all of which must be mailed to a fulfillment center. A rebate may take weeks to arrive and come in the form of a prepaid debit card that looks like junk mail and may get accidentally tossed in the trash.

Denver-based writer Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies. Find her at