What to look out for in the small print

Pen signing contract in blood The devil's in the detail so make sure you read before you sign

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Would you tick a box agreeing to sell your immortal soul to a company?

Some 7,500 people did just that when video game retailer, Gamestation, used spoof terms and conditions on its website as an April Fool day prank in 2010.

In all, 84% failed to notice they had signed away their soul in the small print when making a purchase, but they are not alone in ignoring Terms and Conditions when shopping.

Surveys show that the majority of us sign contracts or click to agree to terms without reading them.

"Always read through any contract you sign to make sure you are not agreeing to conditions which may affect your rights as a consumer," says Katherine Reece Thomas, a contract specialist at City Law School.

"Terms and conditions are often drafted to protect the seller or supplier. Once you have accepted them, you will have trouble getting out of them if things go wrong."

If you do read the small print then there are a few pitfalls it is worth looking out for:

Is the price fixed?

Watch out for anything that allows the seller or supplier to vary the price, as this could mean the price will increase, even in a so-called fixed price contract. Always get a salesperson to confirm the price and assure you it won't change. Mobile phone contracts sometimes contain a clause that allows them to increase the monthly payments, although you will have a hard time getting the salesperson to admit to this.

Are there hidden charges?

Be careful of clauses that impose extra payments if you end up using more of the service than you expected, do not pay on time or if you want to cancel early. These charges can mount up, so make sure you are aware of any extra charges and how to avoid them. Be wary of "fair usage" clauses and download limits in broadband agreements or prepayment penalties on loans.


  • 12% of adults would rather read the phone book than terms and conditions
  • Just 7% of adults always read full online terms and conditions when signing up for products and services
  • 21% of the people surveyed say they have suffered as a result of ticking the terms and conditions box
  • 10% find themselves locked into a longer term contract than they expected
What are the exclusions or limitations?

Exclusion or limitation clauses are the "get-out-clauses" that try to restrict or limit the liability of the seller or supplier. These clauses may try to let the seller get out of refunding or replacing goods and services that are faulty or not as described, or give unreasonably short time limits on returning goods. Watch out for certain items that may not be covered in insurance policies or types of damage that are not covered in warranties.

How and when can you opt out?

The small print may tie you into a minimum contract term or lock you into a continual payment. You may have to opt out of a contract when it comes to an end to stop it being renewed automatically. Subscriptions to online magazines or streaming services will often renew the contract automatically so make sure you are aware of the process and the notice period required in order to opt-out.

What if I don't understand part of the contract?

Always ask if there is something you don't understand in the contract. If you don't like a term, it may be worth querying it with the salesperson or contacting an online retailer's website. You may find they can be more flexible than you think.

The law requires sellers to use simple language in contracts but if it's not clear you can get further information and advice from the Office of Fair Trading and the Citizens Advice Bureau.

This material is for general information only and does not constitute legal or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Links to external sites are for information only and do not constitute endorsement. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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