(I’m a lawyer, and personally, I’ll read something like a lease in its entirety — but everything else just gets a quick glance. It’s simple math: I expect to pay $18,000 over the course of a year-long lease, so I take the time to read it.) What are people supposed to do? The legalese simply isn’t readable — figuratively, or even literally (how are the elderly supposed to read it?). I imagine even a lot of lawyers would labor over it. So the company erects this labyrinth of provisions, and customers wander into unaware of all the trap doors and grizzly monsters inside. Yet we’ve come to accept this as normal, simply because no one has stepped up to challenge it.
The truth is that Verizon should have done something to help this family. Either on the front end, by alerting them that their plan had changed and they were paying by the kilobyte, or on the back end, by calling them when it became clear that they were being charged hundreds of dollars a day. But no, Verizon simply wishes to pocket the money, declaring breezily that the customer should have known better. Caveat emptor worked a hell of a lot better when one was buying a chicken from a Roman market: a quick glance could tell you if the chicken was sick or not. Today, for large mega-corporations to booby-trap their contracts and then blame customers’ lack of diligence is despicable — it’s poor customer service, and it’s poor corporate citizenship. (And yes, if the Supreme Court wishes to give the corporation free speech rights, then it damn well needs to start exercising the responsibilities of citizenship and civil conduct by which we mortal beings have to abide.)
This is a market failure, pure and simple. Large companies all get away with this practice and have the economies of scale (they can afford the high-priced lawyers who draft all that gobbledygook) and market power to back it up. There is simply no excuse for such closed, opaque business, so we’ll have to fight law with law, making these contracts more open and transparent.
Government needs to do more to protect customers against these bad business practices: require all fine print contracts to be summarized in plain large-type English (as is required, at least somewhat, for credit card terms), and require companies to get specific assent that customers understand key terms of a contract, including the price, term, and duration of any promotional teaser rate and what the rate jumps to after that. So let’s start here — with new legislation, and perhaps a determination that such underhanded use of contract law is a violation of existing consumer protection laws (in Massachusetts, chapter 93A). And better yet, it might help progressive politicians direct some of that floating voter anger out there to the bad practices and reforms that are necessary to make the economy and society a bit more open and fair.
(first published at The Darwin Economy: http://www.thedarwineconomy.co… )