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Look for Red Flags by Reading the Fine Print

Author Bob Sullivan talks about ways to avoid being scammed, while football legend Joe Montana moderates an event at CES for AARP

A magnifying glass makes fine print bigger


Bob Edwards: On today's show, we hear from Football Hall of Famer, Joe Montana, who's noteworthy for having played for both teams and this year's big game, about what's new in the world of sport and fitness technology, and our guest clues us in on what can happen if you don't read the fine print.

Bob Sullivan: It's all legal because well, everything's legal until someone challenge it at the court.

Bob Edwards: Hi, I'm Bob Edwards with an AARP Take on Today. Technology use among older adults is growing with no signs of slowing down. According to a new AARP study, adults ages 50 and older are adopting new technology at nearly the same rate as adults aged 18 to 49. In 2018, 50 plus Americans spent over a hundred billion dollars on technology disrupting the idea that older adults don't use new tech. Here's what AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins had to say to tech industry leaders, at this year's Consumer Electronics Show or CES.

Jo Ann Jenkins: Our world is changing constantly and at an increasingly rapid pace. This year, people age 60 and older will outnumber children aged five and under for the first time in history. We're here at CES because we believe that a growing older population is a key driver of economic growth, innovation and new value creation.

Bob Edwards: Smart phones, laptops, and smart watches however, aren't the only form of technology that are changing to meet the needs of older people. Jenkins was joined by football Hall of Famer, Joe Montana.

Joe Montana: So excited about this event, in the beginning when I first was contacted about it, but then I was thinking, how do I fit in with AARP? Well, you're 63 you forgot about that. And the other way I fit in is obviously as an athlete you're always looking for technology, while we are playing that could help you either recover faster, stay on the field longer. But nothing changed, I realized as I got older, that I still was looking for the same things. I still want to stay in the game, so I'm always looking for that thing that gives you the edge, on the technology side especially.

Bob Edwards: He moderated a pitch event wherein eight startups competed to showcase sport and fitness technologies that would help people stay active as they age. Over the course of his legendary football career, Montana has sustained more than a few injuries.

Joe Montana: I might have had 27 surgeries.

Bob Edwards: Of course with the help of his doctors, he could always bounce back, but some falls took bigger tolls than expected for the Comeback Kid. Technology helped Montana realize how he could start to treat these issues, for example, his balance.

Joe Montana: I never thought I had a balance problem until my wife got this one machine, I won't name it, and I was doing it with her one day and they were making you do these balance issues and I'm going, "Oh my God, I am so bad." I have one leg that's numb since '87, it might be part of the issue of my balance.

Bob Edwards: The winner of the pitch event was The Zibrio SmartScale , a device that measures balance to assess fall risk. Those in attendance deemed Zibrio's device most effective at helping older adults stay in the game. Zibrio CEO Katharine Forth said, "While the science of fall risk factors is well established, many people aren't aware of it, nor did they have a way to monitor or improve their own balance on a day to day basis." Here's a final word from Montana.

Joe Montana: Technology's playing a big part in the world no matter what, and when it comes to your health and when it comes to injuries and recovering from injuries, it's always been a part of it and it'll continue to be a part of it's always great to see that there are always people working on new things that you haven't seen.

Bob Edwards: For more information about the world of technology and innovation, visit

Contract agreements can sometimes contain fine print and if you're not careful, it can cost you big bucks. Joining us today is Bob Sullivan, an author who has spent his career detailing the perils of hidden fees. He's written books like Gotcha Capitalism and Stop Getting Ripped Off.

Most people don't bother reading the fine print. Why is that?

Bob Sullivan: We're busy. People who are living their lives, they're trying to raise kids, they're trying to study for class, they're trying to do their jobs. We're not supposed to be lawyers, and one of the problems of modern time is that, we've all been lawyered up. So now, we really almost need to be a professional just in order to do something like buy a cell phone, get a credit card, buy milk at the grocery store, all these things are full of fine print, and that means they're ripe for abuse.

Bob Edwards: What's the origin of fine print?

Bob Sullivan: The lawyers, it always goes back to the lawyers. All of this is very defensive. Conceptually it's a contract, and this is actually an idea that I balk at. You buy a cell phone, somebody hands you a piece of paper with 10,000 words on it, and you sign it and it's a contract, but theoretically contracts require two elements. You have to be giving something and you have to be getting something. There's consideration on both sides and you get to bargain the terms. "Wait a minute, I disagree with section 2BC here," you know, that doesn't happen. So these aren't really contracts. They're more like list of horrible things that could happen to you.

Bob Sullivan: So we're giving you a cell phone and if you're late, you're going to pay this fee. If you don't return the phone on time, you're going to have this happen to your credit report. We might besmirch you publicly for the next seven years in front of every other company. So it's more like a list of punishments.

Bob Edwards: I guess if someone somewhere can read it under a microscope, it's legal.

Bob Sullivan: It's all legal because ... Well, everything's legal, until someone challenges it in court. I think this is a really important concept that companies can claim all sorts of things. You know, when you walk into a baseball stadium, the ticket says, "If you get hurt, you're on your own," but you can't really waive your liability that way. You can try, but there are lots of situations where even if the fine print says X, when you go in front of a judge and a jury, the jury says, "Why?" So, don't always assume that what's in the piece of paper is really the final word.

Bob Edwards: Who's responsible when somebody is caught off guard by the fine print?

Bob Sullivan: I am of the opinion that it's the party that knows best, is responsible. It's kind of a generous interpretation, I would call myself a consumer advocate, so that's why, and not everybody can agree with that position. But just to go back to say the mortgage crisis, when a lot of people sign mortgages that they didn't understand and then they had interest rates that jumped on them or they couldn't afford the lump payments or whatnot.

Okay, so there's a family that wants a house for their five kids. They just had an extra kid. They're buying a bigger house, they sign a contract and maybe they make a mistake. Lot of people want to blame that family. I blame the mortgage professional who does this five times a day, and knows what they're doing and knows probably this family is making a mistake but doesn't say anything about it. So for my money, the professionals who know what they're doing, it's their fault.

Bob Edwards: Is there a judge in this world who agrees with you?

Bob Sullivan: There are, yeah. There are plenty of, the problem is you need a lot of money and time. That family with five kids isn't going to sue the mortgage company. You need a state attorney general to do it. You need the FTC to do it, or you need a class action lawyer to do it, so you need a professional. But yeah, there are all sorts of cases where people, when you know David versus Goliath arguments. So I think it really is important when someone feels screwed like this to not feel helpless. I'm a big believer in being as polite as you can for as long as you can, when you have these disputes. There's always a human being on the other side, and you get more bees with honey than vinegar and all that. It's best to be respectful, but I also feel very strongly about this.

A lot of people just get angry and that's a big mistake. "You've screwed me. I'm frustrated." Probably you feel like you've been screwed 25 other times in the last six months and you finally can't take it anymore, so you start yelling and screaming. That's not effective. What's effective is saying what happened and what you want, very important.

Bob Edwards: Then they say, "Well look Mr. Sullivan, your name is right here under that fine print."

Bob Sullivan: That can happen, and then you have to escalate to either threatening a small claims court case, which is something I wish a lot more consumers would do, or going to your state attorney general or complaining to a federal authority. But it's always worth asking first and being very specific. "Look, there's six $30 late fees here, but your website was down that whole time. So I couldn't check my statement. I request that you waive those six $30 late fees." I think people would be surprised how often that really works.

Bob Edwards: Who have you known that's been affected by the fine print?

Bob Sullivan: Oh gosh, I can't imagine a person who hasn't been affected by the fine print. I wrote a book 10 years ago called Gotcha Capitalism, where I described this fine print phenomenon as, you know, it's these everyday annoying things. It's these $10 fees or the contract you didn't realize you had signed for cable that you can't get out of, which sounds annoying. But when you wrap all that together into a system, I argue that this has broken the US Free Market System, because no longer does the company with the best products and the best prices and the best customer service win, the company that cheats the best wins, the company with the best Gotchas.

Bob Edwards: The best lawyers, yeah.

Bob Sullivan: The best lawyers. Yeah, yeah, and that's not only frustrating for consumers, it's bad for the country and it's one of the reasons our cell phone networks are terrible, because companies can get away with this misbehavior. Again, the normal reward mechanism of capitalism is not at play when their lawyers are more focused on cheating you then their technicians are focused on giving you better products at better prices.

Bob Edwards: And for some services we are actually the product. What do you mean by that?

Bob Sullivan: Yeah, this is a really important concept. We now live in a world where so many things we get from the internet are "Free." We all use free email or almost all of us. There's even free computers, I've written about free cell phone service. Nothing is free. If you're not paying for the product then you are the product, and Silicon Valley has been trading on this for decades. Now I've lived in Seattle, worked under the umbrella of Microsoft for about 15 years, so I have a lot of Silicon Valley, West Coast software brain in my head. And there's a machine that somebody described this to me recently, you put privacy into the machine and profits come out of the machine. Like our privacy is ground up like ground beef into profits, because following you around turns out to be really, really valuable. Knowing that you're a person who likely gets coffee at 10:30 every morning from a certain coffee shop makes it really valuable for another coffee shop to advertise to you at 10:15 in the morning.

Bob Edwards: How can we avoid being taken advantage of by the fine print? Read it, of course.

Bob Sullivan: Yeah. Reading is is one thing, although I'm really reluctant to put a whole bunch of burden on consumers here. Right now, the US Congress is contemplating a federal privacy law, and there's a big shift right now. We have lived in what we have been calling the age of consent for 20 years. Like, "Well, you clicked okay on iTunes user agreement, therefore we can do what we want with you." And while that might be consent, it's no such thing as informed consent. Informed consent is almost impossible in our age. So, rather than putting the burden on the iTunes user or the Google user, or the Facebook user, the burden should be on the company, and there should be rules around what they can do.

So you still as an individual can do some things still. The first is that, it just be a pain in the butt, I think this is really valuable, when somebody asks your phone number, when you buy something, just say no and be the annoying person who takes another 10 seconds at the checkout line. I say to a lot of people, I think complaining is like voting. Sometimes it feels like it's not doing any good, but if no one does it, then you get what you deserve, right? So if you complain to that cashier, that cashier's eventually going to say to his or her boss, "You know, people are complaining a lot about this phone number. Can we just skip this phone number thing?" And you might actually force change that way. So little things like that I think can help.

Bob Edwards: Are there limits to fine print?

Bob Sullivan: Yes, there's all sorts of limits. Again, a company can't just waive away all its responsibilities. There are plenty of experiments where people hide terms in contracts on the internet, like "We get your first born child. We get your liver," and people say yes to it because they don't read the fine print. That's a funny experiment to show people don't read, but it also proves there are limits to what companies can do, even if they put it in writing.

Bob Edwards: What are the most common cases where people get taken advantage of by fine print?

Bob Sullivan: Travel is really bad, like timeshares. A lot of people know about timeshares and the real problem with timeshares is not the check you read at the beginning, it's the ongoing checks that you write later on and you have no idea how much, what are the maintenance fees going to be, all that kind of thing. But there's a lot of problems right now with hotels, because most people search for hotels online. They search by price, they pick a hotel somewhere far away, and then they get there in the price they have to pay is larger than the price they saw online, because a hotel cleverly adds something called, a resort fee or an urban fee to do things.

Bob Edwards: It's the season.

Bob Sullivan: Yeah, yeah, cleaning fee, you know. That one really irks me because of the house cleaning fee never goes to the house cleaners. They just collect it, it's a disaster.

Bob Edwards: They thought about it.

Bob Sullivan: Yeah, no. As you can see, this stuff really irritates me personally, but I like using the travel example because economists for years have been talking about what they call, the tourist local problem. So when you're a local, we're in Washington DC right now, you know if a cab driver is taking you for a ride or not because you live here. You know this steak place is expensive and not worth it. This steak place a smaller, not nice looking outside, but it's better. When you're a local, you get good deals. When you're a tourist, you fly to a brand new city, you have no one to help you, you're a babe in the woods, really likely to get screwed. It's easy for a cab driver to take you for a ride. You'll probably overpay for dinner until you keep going back and you transform from a tourist into a local, right.

The problem with the digital age is almost all of us are tourists. We live in a world where the rules can change constantly. In effect, this happens all the time. Companies change their contracts while we're in relationship with them, and so we're never in that position where we really know what's going on. So I think even just as a framework for people to think, whenever you're in any kind of a transaction, say to yourself, "Am I a tourist or a local right now?" And if you're a tourist, hit pause and get help.

Bob Edwards: What are some of the trickier ways that people get caught in fine print?

Bob Sullivan: When they're busy. I always imagine, a mom with one kid in one hand and carrying a baby in the other, trying to rent a car at a checkout counter, and they ask you questions about collision waivers and whatnot, and kids screaming like, "Just get me out here. What do I have to do? I'll sign this." And that's a metaphor for all of us who are busy all the time. I think one thing that's a really good mental discipline is this pause button concept, and we see this in outright scams all the time, right? Criminals when they're scamming people always put urgency on them, "Send this money right now or you're going to go to jail." Or, "Mom, I'm stuck in a jail in London, send it." So they always create urgency, well companies do this too. Every transaction that you have, take it seriously. Hit pause, go outside, take a deep breath and just think for a few minutes before you do anything.

Bob Edwards: What are the red flags to look for in contract agreements, not that they are flagged or red for that matter?

Bob Sullivan: You know there's a whole lot of them, from legal terms like statute of limitations for example, or indemnity clauses. Some companies are now putting statutes of limitations clauses in their everyday contracts. So if you're going to sue them, you can only sue them in the first year, which is random and not always enforceable. But again, when you call, because the product lit your kitchen on fire, three years after buying it, they're going to say, "Sorry, we have this contract term."

Bob Edwards: Only a Delaware. They can only send me in Delaware.

Bob Sullivan: Right, right. The indemnification clauses claim you can't sue us at all basically, that all the responsibility is on you. So those are some of the legalese ones, but I think for everyday contracts you want to look for things like ongoing contract terms, teaser rates. So the cable company says it's $49 a month, but only for six months, and then it's $149, seven months and beyond, and you're standing there or on the phone, you may think to yourself, "Of course in July I'll call and cancel this service." They know half the people don't do that. So I think that's a real trick, as is free trial is a really big problem. People sign up for things, assuming they're going to cancel, and then they forget about it. I haven't looked at this number recently, but I know as recently as two years ago, some several million people that were still paying for America Online Dial Up Service because they had just never canceled it.

Bob Edwards: We're speaking here to the 50 plus crowd, and needless to say, fine print is a bigger issue for us.

Bob Sullivan: It is. It's a bigger issue because there's just more contracts to sign, and there's bigger piles of money to go after, right? I mean everyone ... Once you start moving into things like, how are you handling your retirement payouts, consider annuities or complicated financial instruments like reverse mortgages or even just mortgage help. Those are laden with fine print and there's too many booby traps in those kinds of contracts to just go over here. I would encourage anyone in the middle of a serious transaction like that to get help. At a bare minimum, I know I'm repeating myself, but it's so important to do these things slowly and deliberately and take your time with them, and don't let anybody talk you into anything in a day or two at a lunch, at a dinner, in an office meeting, without talking to somebody else first.

Bob Edwards: So those of us who've worn glasses for 35 years are more challenged, I'm assuming.

Bob Sullivan: It's called fine print for a reason. In fact, print on consumer products now is smaller than it ever has been, partly because of the technology of printing. I now use reading glasses and I go to a CVS just to pick up, look at ingredients in a prescription and I can't read it, you know? So when you think about that, think about how hard it is to read contracts, and it's called fine print because it's smaller than the rest of the print, right? The very first scene of the book that I wrote is a billboard in Seattle that is for Cable TV and it says $49 a month, and there's an asterisks next to the $49.

There's just something about asterisks that bothered me. It's the 27th letter of the alphabet is what I call it now. I was in a mood, I wasn't had to pick up truck. I pull up underneath the billboard to see what the fine print is at the bottom of the billboard because it's an asterisks and in tiny fine print. Even stopping under the billboard, I couldn't read it. I hop into the bed of my pickup truck, I pull out my camera, I had a decent camera with me and I zoom in on it and I finally can read the tiny words on this billboard next to a highway that say, "See website for details."

Bob Edwards: I thought it was going to say, "Not for you, Bob."

Bob Sullivan: But that's how the fine print is often a fraction of the size of the rest of the print, and that's why it's a difficult to understand and see.

Bob Edwards: Even worse on a billboard, wow. Anything else?

Bob Sullivan: Well, let me just repeat myself. It's a very, very complicated world right now, and I don't think it's fair to put the burden on individual consumers to prevent themselves from falling into one of these traps. We don't sell toasters that light people's kitchens on fire. We shouldn't sell financial products that do, but everybody should take care of themselves as best they can anyway, and the best way to do that is to go slow, to hit the pause button and always get help from another person.

Ideally with everything that you buy or everything you interact with, perfectly, you would get three or four companies kind of bidding against each other for a product, but at least go to one other company when someone offers to fix your roof or to get you a new credit card or get you a mortgage. Get one other perspective on what's being offered to you, and that'll help a lot.

Bob Edwards: You can find Bob Sullivan's article, It Pays to Read the Fine Print in Contracts, and his books in the show notes. For more information, visit

This week, we remember PBS NewsHour anchor, Jim Lehrer, who has died at age 85. In 2012, a reporter criticized Lehrer for being too old to moderate a debate between candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Writing for the New Republic, Timothy Noah said, "There isn't anybody presiding over this year's presidential and vice presidential debates who isn't AARP eligible." Lehrer who had already moderated 11 debates by then, had sworn off refereeing another, but the commission on presidential debates persisted, and Lehrer at age 78, ultimately moderated his 12th at the University of Denver, covering domestic policy issues.

Our second remembrance is of Kobe Bryant. He died just four years after his retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers after 20 seasons. Bryant's longevity in Pro Basketball earned him extensive praise, but also some chiding. When Bryant turned 35, NBA Hall of Famer, Reggie Miller sent him birthday wishes, tweeting, "They will be sending you an AARP card soon. Enjoy middle age, it ain't so bad." Bryant died at age 41 along with his 13 year old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

Thank you to our news team, Producer Colby Nelson, Assistant Producer Danny Alarcon, Production Assistant Bridget Launi, Field Producer TJ Cooney, Engineer Julio Gonzalez, Writer Jill Higgs, Executive Producer, Jason Young, and of course my cohosts, Wilma Consul and Mike Ellison. Become a subscriber and be sure to rate our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, and other podcast apps. Thanks for listening. I'm Bob Edwards.

Most people don’t read the fine print, but author Bob Sullivan is here to tell you why you should — and why that might not be enough. Tune in to this week’s episode to learn how to spot the red flags and rip-offs. Plus, hear from football legend Joe Montana at the Consumer Electronics Show, where he moderated a technology pitch event sponsored by AARP Innovation Labs.

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