Terms and conditions are an essential tool for businesses, and in a perfect world, they also inform the consumer exactly what they are getting into when they make a purchase. However, in the real world, they’ve become wordy behemoths that are so complicated, they can be almost impossible for the average user to understand. In 2013, researchers concluded that Google’s terms of service were more difficult to understand than Beowulf or War and Peace. 

Because of this (or as a result), most users simply don’t bother to even look at them. On April Fools Day 2010, as a gag/experiment, game company GameStation purposely put a clause in their terms which gave the company the right to claim user’s souls. Eighty-eight percent failed to opt-out via a simple checkbox.

This seemed to be confirmed by a 2013 UK study, which found that just 7% of British consumers took the time to read the full terms and conditions before they buy.

How to Do a Quick Scan of the Terms

Still, it is crucial to understand these agreements as much as possible, especially on a website that you are not familiar with. Although you’re unlikely to lose your soul, you could lose your shirt.

First of all, when you get to the order page, there will usually be a summary of many of the key points of the Terms and Conditions, especially if you are buying something that is giving you a trial offer or free month of service. It’s usually the smallest writing on the page – zoom in on it using command+ if you have to. You will often find:

  • The length of the trial offer (sometimes as short as 14 days from order)
  • The amount you will owe after this date
  • The customer service number to reach them

If something doesn’t sound so good, stop. Abandon your order and shop somewhere else!

Visiting the Terms Page

In addition to the summary, there is often the actual Terms and Conditions page that goes into great detail about your rights and theirs. There is, of course, a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo that won’t directly affect you. But some things certainly will.

First, use the page search application to find the word “refund” or “return”. This will spell out the details of any money back guarantee. Many return policies don’t include the shipping and handling fees, and some charge a re-stocking fee. Most of the time, you have to pay to ship the item back to them. Make note of the length of the guarantee, and when it starts – on the date of the order, or when it arrives in the mail. This can make a big difference!

Next, search for the word “arbitration” – this will likely lead you to a paragraph that says you will give up your right to sue them or join in a class action, instead opting for an impartial mediator. The New York Times did a lengthy investigation use of arbitration and found that the majority of rulings favored businesses over consumers, who rarely used them at all.  

We advise also searching for the term “opt-out”, to see if there is a chance for you to avoid this. Unfortunately, this option may not be available, and until they change the laws, you may just have to grin and bear it. 

“Negative Option” is another good term to search for. As we discussed at length, companies that sell a subscription-based service often have a Negative Option Clause. This can be useful for things like cell phone contracts, saving you the hassle of calling every month to renew. But with products like anti-aging creams, it means they can charge your card, and there may be little you can do about it. If you see a Negative Option, understand that you must specifically call to cancel your subscription.

Tools to Help You

Fortunately, there is some help for consumers with understanding Terms and Conditions. There is a website called TOSDR.org, which stands for Terms of Service, didn’t read. The site’s goal is to help educate consumers by rating the most popular websites from Class A to Class E and highlighting their good and bad provisions. (They’ve also created a browser plugin that will show you the rating of any site that you visit that’s in their database – download here.)

If you have a Windows computer, you can install EULAlyzer, which lets you know what the software you are downloading is doing behind the scenes and scans license agreements to highlight key phrases in the terms. 

We also recommend checking out Literatin for Chrome, which shows you the literary equivalent of any website you visit. (We’re not sure if we should be angered or flattered, but it said BrightReviews was as complex as Moby Dick.)

We’ll leave you on a Brighter note with a story of Dmitry Agarkov, who found that the Terms and Conditions of a contract can cut both ways. Mr. Agarkov did not like the terms of a credit card agreement sent to him by Tinkoff, a Russian bank. So, he wrote in his own terms: he changed his interest rate to zero, eliminated all fees and allowed himself unlimited credit. 

Tinkoff issued the credit card without reading Dmitry’s amendments. Later, when they took him to court to pay the unpaid fees, the judge said he wasn’t responsible for them because the bank failed to read the terms that they signed. 

Let us know what you think of this article, or any excessive terms you’ve encountered, below!