IT IS a familiar phrase seen on thousands of websites every day: “I have read the terms and conditions”.
Most people have lied about this hundreds of times in their lives – merrily checking the tick box as they hand over their personal details for an online transaction – when they have not even gone near the terms and conditions section of the company’s website.
But consumer groups have warned that customers need to become more savvy about what they are signing up to as an increasing number of people find they have inadvertently agreed to a whole host of conditions which they were not aware of.
“We are very concerned about the way companies present their information, and have called for all sellers to be more clear about what they are selling and what it will cost,” said Susan McPhee, acting chief executive of Citizens Advice Scotland. “If they will not do that voluntarily, then the regulation needs to be strengthened, so that wrong-doers can be identified and sanctioned.
“Until that happens, the clear lesson for consumers is to always read the small print and know what you are signing up to, before you buy. Beware these innocent-looking little tick-boxes, which often commit you to more than you think. And always check your bank statements – there could be all sorts of things being lifted out of your account every month, and you’ll never know unless you check.”
And it is not surprising that online shoppers are confused. A recent Which? report revealed that some terms and conditions are actually longer than major works of literature – running to tens of thousands of words.
The blurb provided by online payment service PayPal totals 32,275 words – longer than William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, while Facebook’s policy is 11,195 words in length – around the same length as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
Meanwhile, Ryanair came under fire from the same consumer watchdog last week for burying its “no travel insurance” option in a long list of countries for which the customer could take out travel insurance. If customers did not spot the option when booking their flight, they would automatically be charged for cover which they potentially did not want or need.
“If you are buying in the UK, then you have a certain level of consumer protection,” said Patricia Wollington, a solicitor at Which? legal services. “But when buying from companies overseas, things might be completely different. Without reading the terms and conditions, you don’t know if you have the right to return goods, for example.
“If it is a lot of money you are spending, it could be worth trying to pursue a claim, but if it’s a small amount, it wouldn’t be cost effective, so it’s best to know before you buy.”
Under Data Protection laws, firms have to ask the customer to opt in to a tick box – or make it clear in their terms and conditions that a customer has to consciously “opt out” – if the agreement is that they will pass on their details to other firms, or use their personal information of email or home addresses for marketing purposes.
But many people, rushing to complete a transaction, do not realise what they have agreed to – or differentiate between clauses which allow firms to use their information and the standard “terms and conditions” box.
“Consumers quite rightly expect open, honest and transparent communication from providers that isn’t, in any way, confusing,” said Gemma Crompton, policy manager of Consumer Focus Scotland. “It is vital that providers make it crystal clear to consumers what they are signing up for, to ensure customers don’t end up frustrated down the line.
“We would also urge people to check, and check again, the small print.”