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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