Monday, November 30, 2009

Life's a Beach (So Read the Fine Print)

Over the holiday weekend, a CNN affiliate investigated growing consumer complaints about At The Beach, Inc., an area tanning salon chain with some pretty stringent member agreements. Customers claim that they were duped into signing virtually-unbreakable two-year contracts, and then burned by the fine print when attempting to cancel their accounts. Although most—including the news station’s undercover reporter—were assured by friendly employees that the contracts could be canceled “at any time,” consumers say they were not informed of the requirement to either “buy out” 50% of the remaining time on their contracts, or to prove that they had moved at least 25 miles away from the closest location in order to stop the automatic monthly billing.

Is your inner lawyer feeling a distinct lack of sympathy for those who signed without reading? As the news video (5:49) shows, even seasoned attorneys can get caught in a contract trap: interview subject Kevin Lanoha is corporate counsel at Qwest, and received a J.D. from Cornell in 1994.

So, how can consumers better protect themselves, especially during the holiday shopping season? The Goodson Blogson has compiled some tips.
  1. Always read the fine print. Of course it sounds obvious, but it could have saved many At The Beach customers a major financial headache. Whether it’s a tanning membership, cell phone plan, apartment lease, or mortgage, take the time to ensure that you understand what you’re signing. Beware the distractingly chatty employee who attempts to summarize the contract for you—as the tanning salon customers learned the hard way, contradictory verbal promises will likely not help in a later dispute over the contract terms.
  2. Investigate before you buy. Customers who check out businesses and charities with their local Better Business Bureau can get a sense of potential problems with the organization. (For example, regional Better Business Bureaus graded At The Beach locations anywhere from D-minus to F.) For products, comparison-shop at Consumer Reports for objective discussions of particular brands and models.
  3. Make credit your plastic of choice. While debt gurus like Suze Orman would prefer that you always pay in cash (to ensure you are buying only what you can afford), most shoppers will put at least some purchases on plastic. Debit cards are tempting since, in theory, fear of hefty overdraft fees should prevent shoppers from spending more than they can actually afford. But Consumer Reports notes that in the event of disputed transactions, consumers have far more protection when using credit than debit.
  4. Bone up on online security. The Monday after Thanksgiving is known as “Cyber Monday” for the dramatic spike in online shopping. OnGuard Online, a multi-agency federal government site devoted to Internet security, provides tips for safe online shopping.
  5. Complain like a pro. Even the best of us get burned occasionally. If you have a negative experience, follow the steps outlined in the American Bar Association’s site: After attempting to work out the issue directly with the merchant, contact your local Better Business Bureau and/or the state Attorney General’s office for further investigation.
Do you have a consumer horror story to share? Sound off in the comments.