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A case for reading the small print

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A woman has reportedly been "fined" $3,500 after writing a negative review about an online retailer. It just goes to show that all kinds of things can lurk in the terms and conditions, writes Olivia Sorrel-Dejerine.

A few years ago, Jen Palmer's husband ordered her some "trinkets" from US online retailer He hadn't received them after 30 days so tried to get in touch with the firm. After failing, PayPal refunded his money. His wife posted a bad review on consumer website Ripoff Report, complaining that "there is absolutely no way to get in touch with a physical human being" and accusing KlearGear of having "horrible customer service practices".

Three years later, Palmer's husband reportedly got an email from demanding that the review be removed within 72 hours or they would be "fined" $3,500. The Palmers say the company's demand pointed to the terms of sale, including a non-disparagement clause preventing individuals "from taking any action that negatively impacts, its reputation, products, services, management or employees".

The Palmers say that when they didn't pay the $3,500 "fine", the company contacted credit agencies who put a black mark against their credit score. But the Palmers are far from being the only people not to read the terms and conditions online. In a bid to prove that very few people actually read them, in 2010 - a UK-based games retailer - added an "immortal soul clause" to their T&Cs. The website claimed 88% of customers hadn't read the clause, which gave the company legal ownership of their customer's soul.

"There is no way we are going to read the entire terms and conditions. Life is too short," says technology commentator Bill Thompson. The playing field is uneven because there is no way to challenge the terms and conditions, you either have to accept it all, or reject it all, he says. "It would be better to be able to challenge a particular clause within the terms and conditions, than to expect people to read the whole contract," he says. Of course, immortal soul and even non-disparagement clauses might put people off.

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