When Tamer Abdel-Azim tried to cancel his two-night reservation at the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel recently, the property happily obliged. Then it charged his credit card a cancellation penalty of $430 – the full amount of his stay.
“I really need your help,” he wrote.
Then he sent me his confirmation. At the bottom, there was this little item:
“RESERVATIONS ARE PRE-PAID AND NON-REFUNDABLE. IF CANCELLATION TAKES PLACE, GUESTS FORFEIT TOTAL ROOM CHARGE PLUS TAX.”
Ridiculous? Sure. Whether the hotel re-sells the room or not, it gets to keep his money, which seems a little absurd to the average consumer. But it’s just one of the more common fine print “gotchas” I encounter every day as a consumer advocate.
By the way, if you want some great examples of outrageous fine print, check out Mouseprint.org, a blog that explores some of the absurdities of customer contracts. You’ll laugh until you cry.
Here are five other kinds – and my tips on how to avoid becoming entangled in them.
But you didn’t opt out.
Some of the worst contracts involve forcing a customer to opt out of a purchase by unchecking a pre-checked box online. This happens frequently in the travel industry, where I spend a lot of time mediating cases, but it’s common everywhere. You have to read your purchase agreement carefully before clicking the “buy” button.
Many contracts contain provisions that automatically renew a subscription at the end of a year, whether you want to or not. Those aren’t evil in and of themselves; it’s the companies that insist a customer who failed to notify them before the auto-renew kicked in, and charge them for an entire year of a service they don’t want, that benefit the most from the “auto-renew” gotcha.
You opened the box.
It’s not just the contract, which can be unfair and even onerous – a so-called “contract of adhesion” that only applies to the customer – it’s the fact that you agree to it just by opening the box or breaking the shrink-wrap. Pretty tricky, huh? The only way to avoid it is to not buy the product. It does get worse, by the way: if you buy a product online, clicking “download” sometimes constitutes your agreement to … well, whatever the company wants you to agree to.
We can change this agreement anytime, for any reason.
The most customer-hostile contracts contain provisions that allow a company to change them at any time, for any reason, and to impose their new terms retroactively. You see these a lot with loyalty programs, like frequent flier programs and frequent customer clubs. The only way to avoid such terms is to not participate in the program.
Did we forget to tell you about our policy?
A contract filled with fine print is really nothing compared to the policy behind it. You may have combed the end-user agreement for objectionable content, but when it comes to a refund or exchange, that’s often a matter of company policy.
What is the policy? Great question. Often, the policies aren’t articulated until you need to make an exchange, which is when they drop the bad news on you.
These “gotchas” are only a sampling of the worst of the worst. And for hotel guests like Abdel-Azim, who was trying to cancel his Sheraton reservation, they are difficult and expensive lessons learned. I run across many other egregious examples of fine print every day, and the odds are pretty good that you have, too.
Don’t get taken by them.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.