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Is the Offer Too Good to be True? Learn to Read it Like a Lawyer

Reading what a promotional offer actually says can cut through the hype and reveal the truth.

I received a great offer in the mail last week.  If I would participate in a marketing study and promotion, I would receive a FREE Android Tablet Computer.  Once I received the Android Tablet, I could fill out a short survey, but I could keep the Android Tablet, even if I did not return the survey.  And here was the best part:

“You are under no obligation to pay, purchase or subscribe to anything to receive your tablet. There is no cost for shipping and handling.”

I was then invited to call a toll free number, and was advised (in small print at the bottom of the letter) to visit the company’s website for “all of the terms and conditions of this offer.”

By this time, my BS meter was registering off the scale. There was obviously something wrong here, but what was it?  I fell back on my law school training and read the letter again, this time as a lawyer.

What does it mean to read like a lawyer?  It means to carefully consider exactly what the words actually say, not what they imply or suggest.  It also means to interpret the language to give it every possible meaning. Finally, it means to imagine every way that an opponent could twist the words to your disadvantage.

So what did this promotional letter actually say?

I could get a FREE Android Tablet Computer. Well, Android, isn’t a brand; it’s an operating system. And the calculator on the give-away key ring I got from my bank is technically a computer.  So I was not promised anything other than some type of gizmo that runs on Android software.

OK, no big deal. But it’s free, right?

Not exactly. The letter said I didn’t have to pay, purchase or subscribe to anything to get the gizmo. That leaves open the possibility that I might have to do something else. What could that be?

And why were there “terms and conditions?”  If I was just going to get a free gizmo, there shouldn’t be any terms and conditions.  So I went to the company’s website, and there it was. The catch.

To get my free gizmo, I and my wife (both of us) would have to sit through a “brief” sales presentation for the Global Vacation Network. Thousands of complaints have been filed with Better Business Bureaus across the nation about this tactic, in which unsuspecting audiences are subjected to lengthy programs (often as long as 90 minutes) of relentless high-pressure sales pitches. You can leave, of course, but you forfeit your “free” gift.

Now obviously, it didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the FREE Android Tablet Computer offer was bogus. However, it was an easy example to make an important point.

Anytime you receive an offer that sounds suspiciously good, get the offer in writing and then read it like a lawyer. This applies to any offer, including offers to sell you products, offers to perform services, or offers to make investments.

If the written offer isn’t clear, insist on specifics, and get them in writing. Know exactly what you are you getting and exactly what you are going to pay for it.  Assume that every term and condition is there for a purpose, and realize that the purpose is to favor the person making the offer.

And if it seems cynical to read every offer like a lawyer, just remember, a lawyer probably wrote it.

Have a question or a suggestion for a topic?  Email dspirgen@SpirgenLawFirm.com.

Patch posts are general discussions and should not be used as advice on any specific legal matter.  If you need legal advice on a particular situation, please consult an attorney.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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