The joke goes that if you want to hide some really important information, you should put it in the middle of some pages of terms and conditions—because nobody ever reads those. There’s some truth to the joke, but some terms and conditions (aka terms of service) really need to be read because they can have a serious impact on your privacy and security, as well as your pocketbook.
Of course the safest thing you can do is to read every word of all the terms and conditions you see when you download an application to your phone, sign up for an online account, receive a new credit card in the mail—or any of hundreds of other activities. The more sensitive and expensive the action you’re taking, the more important it is to read the details before you sign your name on the dotted line or click “Agree.”
That said, most people don’t have time or aren’t willing to make the time to wade through all that legalese. If that’s true for you, it still makes sense to quickly scan the agreements to look for at least three key policies related to privacy, renewals, and returns.
The renewal policy is also critical, particularly for subscription-based services that require your credit card number to engage in a free or reduced-price trial. That “free month” of a magazine or other service is likely to automatically turn into a paid service unless you call or write in to cancel. You may not be able to avoid this, but by reading the terms of service, you can be clear on what to expect. It’s also a good idea to set a reminder in your calendar with the phone number or other information necessary to cancel the service as soon as the trial ends, if you don’t want to start paying for it.
Before you make an online purchase at a site you’re not familiar with, also be sure to read about their return policy. Are returns free? Who pays the shipping fees and how much are they? How long can you evaluate the product or service before having to return it? All that information should be laid out clearly on the website and in the terms and conditions.
If you scan the privacy, renewal, and return policies, and don’t like what you see, remember that you can back out of the transaction entirely. In many cases you’ll be able to find a competitor that’s ready and willing to offer you what you need with better terms. You can also call the organization and voice your concerns—which could result in better terms in the future.