By Jane M. Winand, Legal Assistance Attorney
The Fort Meade Legal Assistance Division frequently counsels clients on consumer issues.
When thinking of making a financial decision or purchasing consumer goods, it is best to consider some important rules. We affectionately call these rules “The Seven Rules for Savvy Consumers.”
Rule 1: Set the Limit and Use the 2-Day Tag Team
This rule requires that spouses agree on any purchase above an amount agreed to in advance, such as $100. A purchase over the agreed amount must be approved by both spouses or the deal is forfeited.
Further, no proposed purchase may be made until the day after visiting the seller’s place of business.
This rule helps prevent impulse purchases, and promotes family teamwork on finances. Failure to use this rule may led to a “nag team” marriage, where both parties complain about the other’s spending habits.
Think about any deal overnight and after consultation with your significant other.
Rule 2: Get It In Writing
Oral, exaggerated promises made by a salesperson are called “puffing,” and such lofty promises are common in the marketplace.
A statement that a used car is “a cream puff, driven only on Sundays by a retired librarian” may encourage you to buy the car, but it will not be legally binding unless it is a part of the written contract you must sign when you buy.
More often than not, a used vehicle is sold “as is” with very limited or nonexistent warranties. If a promise is not in writing, it is not legally enforceable in most cases.
If the salesperson is making oral claims and promises about the product or service, imagine that he or she is speaking in a language that you cannot understand. Read the contract, and if the promise being made by the salesperson is not written in the contract, the promise or claim does not exist.
Rule 3: Read It Or Weep
Contracts may be no fun to read, but the best way to protect yourself in any transaction is to read the written promises made to you, ask questions about them, and demand answers you can understand.
Beware when a salesperson says that a matter “will be taken care of later” because such an assurance is not enforceable if it is not in the contract.
The savvy buyer will read information on the product or service before coming in to negotiate a purchase, and then read the contract before singing it.
Once a contract is signed, it is usually done. Remember, it is your money, and you have a right to understand all of the terms in the contract.
Rule 4: Read It and Keep
A consumer advocate, attorney, company commander or the Better Business Bureau can do little or nothing to help a consumer who cannot present any evidence supporting the facts of a transaction.
The client may insist that he or she paid a bill collector in full, but cannot produce a receipt, check or other payment record.
It is difficult to help a consumer who orders by mail or on the internet, and does not retain paperwork about the transaction that includes the product specifics, postal requirements and contact information for the business.
Keep all documentation on major purchases and any transactions involving an unfamiliar company.
Rule 5: Just Say No
This seems obvious, but there is no legal requirement that you sign a contract to purchase goods or services.
Sales techniques often seek to establish a sense of obligation in the consumer to buy something, because of all the trouble the salesperson has gone to explaining the product or service. Don’t fall for it!
Salespersons are trained professionals, and you should try to be a professional buyer. When in doubt, walk away and buy another day.
Rule 6: Avoid the Free Lunch
Consumers approached with really neat deals should ask themselves two questions before becoming too excited. First, is this proposal too good to be true? If so, it probably is.
Secondly, why me? If this is such an outstanding opportunity, all of the friends and family members of the seller would be ahead of you in line for the deal. Frankly, the salesperson may perceive that you are the easiest target that he or she can find at the moment.
Rule 7: The 3-C Rule — Complain, Complain, Complain
You may or may not be able to get specific relief by complaining since the outcome will depend upon how well you have followed other rules.
Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to let the company, the Better Business Bureau, the state attorney general and industry trade groups know how you feel about your treatment. The cumulative effect of your complaints and the complaints of other consumers may change how the business treats others in the future.
If you have consumer law questions, contact the Fort Meade Legal Assistance Division located at 4217 Morrison St., first floor, Office of the Staff Judge Advocate.
To schedule an appointment, call the 301-677-9504 or 301-677-9536.