Now here's a New Year's resolution we should all make, to protect ourselves

31 December 2018 - 08:34
Get into the habit of reading the small print. If you haven’t got time to do so, don’t sign.
Get into the habit of reading the small print. If you haven’t got time to do so, don’t sign.
Image: Gallo Images/iStockphoto

As the last day of 2018 slips away, and we look ahead to the blank slate that is 2019, I’d like to suggest, with the greatest respect and humility, that consumers resolve to acquire an incredibly important habit. Reading the small print. 

I’ve been saying it for years, but every day my inbox tells me that consumers have an aversion to it. Some even admit to it, and then go on to implore me to help them out of the mess they got into because of it.

Here’s the thing – it takes a few minutes to seek out the smallest of the small print in a contract or on a website, but many frustrating hours trying to deal with the consequences of the clause you didn’t read, but are now bound to.

And those few minutes you didn’t spend finding out what could trip you up could go on to cost you massively – emotionally and financially – for months or even years.

Sometimes the killer clause is illegal, and technically you have the protection of the law, but exercising that right can be extremely costly and time consuming.

Here’s a taste of the trouble that not reading the small print can get you into:

An alarming lock-in:

An alarm company in Durban North has slipped a clause into its contract stating that if the consumer fails to notify the company of their intention to cancel on the day the initial three-year period expires – on the very day, not before and not after – the contract renews for another three years. Outrageous, and not in keeping with the Consumer Protection Act, which states the contract rolls over to a month-to-month contract if the consumer doesn’t cancel, but the company is defiant.

The fake Telkom directory listing

The “I didn’t read the small print” case which lands most frequently in my inbox has to do with a directory listing.

The scam artists phone companies which have paid-for bold listings in Telkom’s “white pages” directories across the country. They call the number and ask whoever answers for their name and fax or email address “to update your phone book listing”. They then send a form with a small-print paragraph stating that the company is signing up for a two-year listing in some obscure online directory at an upfront cost of around R8,000. The “I don’t have time to read the small print” employee duly signs and sends it back, and then come the demands for payment of that R8,000. I’ve been contacted by many a receptionist who hasn’t had a proper night’s sleep for weeks, from stress, and fears telling their boss what they’ve done. I tell them to resist all payment demands on the grounds that the initial approach was grossly misleading.

It’s the same story with loan applications. Many go online in search of a loan, supply their details, assuming they are applying for one, and then later discover that the small print commits them to paying an annual or monthly fee for a phone-advice service they neither need nor want.

Blinded by freebies

The lure of free goodies has been used by marketers for generations to lure consumers in, and then get them to commit to paying – usually a lot – for anything from timeshare deals to vacuum cleaners, dietary supplements, face creams and gym “trials”.

When you hear the word “free” or “won” or “prize”, be on high alert and look for the catch in the small print or, better yet, disengage immediately!

What to do if you are told the deposit is non-refundable:

Few consumers focus on the “what if” of a happy event not happening; a holiday being called off due to illness or work commitments or a wedding being cancelled. And because they’re so focused on warm fuzzies of the much-anticipated event, they don’t look for or discuss the “out” clause in the contracts they enter into.

Barely a week goes by without me receiving at least one email from someone who is grappling with the financial fall-out of cancelling with a wedding service provider, for a variety of reasons.

And that’s when, for the first time, they discover what the service provider had in mind when they asked for the payment of a deposit. In many cases, they’re told “the deposit is non-refundable” or “we’ll only refund, minus a handling fee, if we get another booking for that day”. Sometimes that’s included in the contract, but often it’s not.

The good news is the Consumer Protection Act makes blanket “non-refundable deposit” policies illegal. Consumers can cancel an advance booking of any kind and get a refund of what they’ve paid, minus a “reasonable” cancellation fee.

Given that “reasonable” is open to interpretation, the supplier should spell out their policy in detail to whoever is paying – in writing, in the form of a sliding scale of refunds, from 100% if the consumer cancels very soon after making the booking, to zero if they cancel at the last minute. The greater the likelihood of the venue being able to find a booking to replace the cancelled one, the bigger the refund should be.

Bottom line: when entering a contract, scan the contract to find out what it will cost you to get out of it it your circumstances change. If it’s not there, insist that it be added. And if it is there and it’s not fair or legal, ask that the clause be reworded. If the supplier won’t oblige, find another.

If you haven’t got time to read the small print, don’t sign. It’s as simple as that.

Happy 2019!



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