Errors of omission: 3 tips on how to avoid a disclosure scam

Isak55/Shutterstock
Isak55/Shutterstock
They say the devil is in the details. Moyosore Otepola would probably agree.

She recently booked a hotel reservation in Chicago through an airline website. “I found a better deal and decided to cancel the reservation,” she says. But when Otepola phoned the hotel to cancel, a representative delivered some bad news: the reservation couldn’t be changed. Check the terms of her reservation, the employee scolded.

Her airline had failed to mention that little detail.

So it goes everywhere. Consumers are ripped off because a business failed to mention something really important. The problem is pervasive. The Federal Trade Commission recently cracked down on Internet search engines that failed to distinguish between an organic search result and an ad. If your company got one of these letters, you’re probably part of the problem.

The government tries to regulate disclosure on a smaller scale, too. A few years ago, it published guidelines for bloggers who endorsed products. The requirements are still thought to be inadequate. For example, some travel loyalty blogs are little more than cut-and-paste announcements from credit card companies with affiliate links, and no meaningful disclosure that the blogger is being paid a commission for each sign-up. These affiliate-revenue mills, I’m told, are coming under the FTC’s crosshairs soon.

How do you avoid being scammed by a company’s lack of disclosure? Here are a few tips:

Always assume the minimum disclosure. Why would any business prominently tell you of any important terms that might affect your purchase? Whether you’re buying cigarettes and the tobacco company is trying to make the warning label “blend” with the rest of the box, or booking a hotel room online, it’s almost always in the company’s best interests to downplay the fine print. Otepola learned that the hard way. After all, the specifics could have killed the deal. If I told you I’d get $200 if you signed up for a credit card through a link on my site, would you still believe my full-throated endorsement of the card? Maybe. But probably not.

Check the fine print for details. At the very least, most reputable companies disclose all the relevant restrictions in the fine print. But even then, it can be hard to understand what it all means. The average “terms of service” agreement is written by lawyers who have a unique gift of making simple ideas look like gibberish. So seeing them is one thing — understanding the fine print is quite another. If you have questions, make sure you ask a company representative, and if possible, get the answer in writing.

Give the content a little sniff test. Phrases like, “Cancel any time for any reason,” or “Best credit card offer EVER!” are a pretty good sign that there’s more going on under the hood. Is there something the company is conveniently leaving out of the advertising? Chances are, if it looks too good to be true, it is. Reality check: You may never find out about the hidden terms or agenda because you actually use the hotel room as intended and you like the credit card. But wouldn’t you want to know everything there is to know before you buy? Thought so.

By the way, Otepola’s story had a happy ending. She’s working her way through the grievance process with her hotel and airline, and it refunded her money. But it doesn’t have to get that far for you. Be a skeptic. Look for the mouse-print in every offer. Save a copy of your terms before you make a purchase, if necessary. Assume that the important details will be buried.

It’ll keep you from becoming a victim.

Should the government require more disclosure for purchase terms?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • TonyA_says

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I have always understood that the fare rules we humans read were actually written so they can be automated (for distribution to GDS).

    So there will never be rules written only for human beings as far as I know since the interpretation can differ.

  • TonyA_says

    One possibility is with AA Flight and Hotel Booking

    http://www.aa.com/reservation/roundTripSearchAccess.do

    When people buy a bundle like this, they are really buying a prepaid (vacation) package. The terms prepaid and refund do not go together :)

  • emanon256

    I run from pre-paid vacation packages. An agent can put together a much better more customized vacation for me and much of it can be refunded or changed, but its much less likely to be subject to change without notice. I also get what I want that way, instead of getting what the package includes which may not be what I want.

  • TonyA_says

    Carver, this is not personally directed to you, but don’t you agree many of the legalese written on T&Cs that mere mortals cannot understand were written by lawyers? So tell me, why do you guys write stuff that only you guys can understand?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Software contracts work because they generally give you the right to return the product for a full refund if you don’t want to accept the license agreement

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Its a good question. The answer is twofold
    The good part is for specificity. Ambiguous drafting leads to litigation
    The bad part is that if you don’t understand it, you probably will comply with the main points.
    There is a push towards easier to understand language in consumer contracts.

  • bodega3

    I disagree. We are one avenue, just like the internet or calling the carrier directly. What we can do, that the internet can’t do, nor the carrier, is read all carriers fare rules on one screen, in one place.

  • California_Dave

    We as consumers have changed alot. We are always looking for something cheaper and sometimes going with a cheaper option means doing business with some third-party we don’t know just to save a buck. When something goes wrong, we want government to step in and rescue us. We don’t take responsibility for our own actions. When the OP booked her hotel res thru the airline site, she was entering into a contract with that company (not the airline or the hotel), which was why when she called the hotel to cancel her res, they probably told her she had to cancel thru the party she booked with and comply with their terms. The adage “The cheap becomes the expensive” applies here. Let the buyer beware. If you are not sure who you are entering into a contract with or their terms, don’t buy from them. That said, I do think it is the responsibility of government to ensure consumer are provided accurate information in order to make informed decisions, not to come up with laws to protect us from every stupid choice we could possibly make. Put your trust in a company and if they burn you, learn from it, don’t do business with them again, and tell everyone you know.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    booked a domestic Australian ticket & got email confimration & apart from flight info on page 1, had another 5 pages of microprint (must have been 6 point) that I couldn’t read without a magnifying glass.
    What’s the problem ? Lawyers esp US ones.
    The more regulation, the more of this sort of rubbish.
    If everything was non-refundable, it would life much easier, ie take out insurance or take a chance.

  • bodega3

    All airfares on all scheduled airlines have rules and the rules are listed in a certain order. Domestic aren’t as long as international. What riveting reading! It has gotten worst over the past few years with all the new information they have to put in them. It can make your eyes cross!

  • PsyGuy

    I don’t really think disclosures matter in this situation. The fine print and details etc only have value if you have options. Your a traveler in an unknown city, if you had friends or relatives to stay with, you would do that. We stay in hotels and motels because we don’t want to sleep in boxes or the back seat of our rental cars. If you give someone money in advance, your buying something and you shouldn’t plan or expect to get your money back.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    So, I’m totally confused as to your point. So I’ll reiterate mine and perhaps you can tell me what you’re disagreeing with as they points seem fully in alignment with each other.

    1. I’m a proponent of disclosure laws;

    2. Crappy disclosure is better than no disclosure. If there is no disclosure, there is no possibility of making an informed decision. If there is disclosure, even if its crappy, I can perhaps call TonyA or Bodega or some other professional for assistance;

    3. Airline disclosures laws are in their infancy compared with many other consumer oriented businesses.

    Which point are you disagreeing with?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    How is GDS a consumer tool? Correct me if I’m wrong. Can I, Carver, get an account to use GDS. Would I be able to use it without training. Does any layperson use GDS directly?

    By definition, it’s a tool for travel professionals to use to serve their clients. Much like MLS used to be only for real estate agents, Bloomberg financial data and terminals used to only be to financial professionals. There are certain legal databases that are only sold to licensed private investigators and attorneys. I had to show my license before the rep would take my money

    Perhaps its a difference in definition. I define a consumer tool as a piece of machinery, a software programs, etc. designed to be used directly by general public. In any industry there are items which anyone can use, and their are items which are only available to members of that profession.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Not everyone is travel savvy. Besides, if you are included to buy from a third party, say Expedia, Orbitz, etc., why not AA.com

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    If you assume that everything is non-refundable then you’re life will be easier. Personally, I’ll pass on that suggestion.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I don’t understand that.
    I have traveled to many unknown cities. Different hotels have different rules. I picked the one that was best for me with rules that I was willing to live with. I don’t understand what you are trying to get at.

  • EdB

    1 – I agree

    2 – If the disclosure is written in a way a reasonable person cannot understand without having to consult a professional for assistance, how can it be an informed decision?

    3 – My comment was about disclosures in general. The airline’s T&Cs were just an example. But as to your statement, airlines have been around long enough to have had time to simplify their current terms & conditions into simple english that a reasonable person could understand without professional help (and as TonyA mentioned, even those professionals don’t always understand them) yet have not done so. Other businesses who have not been around as long have been able to do so. Saying they are in an infancy period because regulations have just been passed is not valid in my view. They have had years to do it right, but haven’t. The new disclosure laws themselves are in an infancy, but disclosure laws in general have been around for awhile. So to summarize this point, yes the law is in the infancy, but the airline’s disclosure itself is not.

    Fare disclosure and T&C disclosure are two different things in my view, but with similar aspects. Fare tells you how much and T&C tells how it can be used.

  • Michael__K

    I think those crappy airline Fare Rule disclosures didn’t seem as bad 15 years ago when (a) airlines were much more flexible about bending rules as part of good customer service and (b) everyone was buying tickets either by phone or in person from an airline ticket office or travel agent (with the airline paying the commission).

    If you booked by phone, you didn’t see the Fare Rule gobbledygook, but an agent would recite the essentials and you could ask questions and get answers in plain English (and have more confidence in the accuracy of the response than today).

    If you booked in person, you might notice the Fare Rule gobbledygook, but you were face-to-face with an expert who could answer questions free of charge in plain English.

    So I think I sort of agree with both you and Carver — the Fare Rule disclosures have always stunk, but the online do-it-yourself age is in its relative infancy, and the law hasn’t quite caught up with that.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    So if the movie theater wants to harvest your childrens’ organs as stated on the back of the ticket, that works because you could have just asked for a refund?

    OK, I know that’s a ridiculous example (since harvesting live children’s organs is illegal outright, for now) but my point is that under traditional contract law this is silly. A better example would be those Ef-U agreements on the back of parking garage tickets. Much of the time, they make ridiculous demands that are unenforceable (if their employee stands by watching while a crook breaks into your car and doesn’t call anyone it doesn’t matter what the back of the parking garage ticket says, they can be sued).

    The software contracts “work” because some oligarchs bribed and kicked back to various senators and congressmen to pass laws allowing ridiculous copyright schemes such as DMCA. But that’s just the way it is. If I get on a jury to decide a case such as this, they better have a nice kickback package available for me…

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    So, a little information on contract law. This is what is known as a unilateral contract. That means, by an action, you are binding yourself to the contract. It is not a new thing, nor is it peculiar to intellectual property.

    For example, in old style gas stations, the ones where you pumped gas then paid for it inside, the act of pumping gas bound you to the contract. Similarly in the software contract, the act of paying combined with opening the box, binds you to the contract.

    With regards to the parking lot, it depends on the nature of the relationship. If it’s an open air, self parking garage, then the parking lot owner owes you very little. He could probably pull up a lawn chair and watch the crook break into your car and have no liability. I researched such a case 20 years ago.

    If however, it’s a valet service, then they have liability as a bailment is created.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That is my experience as well. When I realized that I decided not to complete the transaction

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Looks like I got that fight I picked. :-)

    So you’re telling me that if a gas station owner has a contract on the wall of the clerk’s desk that if you pump gas, you agree to a $200 oil change and $20 service fee, that you agreed to that by pumping gas and then going inside? :-)

    And who says I bought the software? It could have been a gift. What if the software was given to me without the “contract” attached? What if it was pre-installed by the previous owner? (You’ll probably say that the law says I still am bound by the agreement, somehow.)

    But yeah, I’m not disputing what the law is on this matter. I’m only pointing out how corrupt it is. If cars were sold like software, then we could go to jail for 20 years for trying to use generic parts instead of factory brand or using a third party repair shop. It’s a pretty sweet deal they got.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    :)

    That’s why there are various consumer protection laws to prevent abuses. The only point I was making is that software licenses are not different from other areas of law.

    To answer your question about the software being given, the donor can only give the rights that he or she possess. So you the recipient would still be bound.