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Learn how to read and understand Agreements, Terms & Conditions, Terms of Service Before agreeing to them.

Printable format

Agreements are legal contracts, folks. 

Before we go any further, we need to talk about signing up for any kind of financial relief, third party financial assistance programs, and check cashing cards. 

In the living room, at the bank, on the Internet, people who are feeling a bit panicky have a tendency to check the little box that says "I have read and accept the Agreement (Terms of Service, Terms & Conditions, or whatever the contract is called)" without actually having read the Agreement, which is in fact a CONTRACT.  

Bad move!!  I'll tell you why - you don't know what you are agreeing to which could be charges you never anticipated.  We see that complaint all the time.  Learn to STOP, READ, and THINK! 

NOTE: Only YOU can open a bank account.  There are services on the web that claim they can open bank accounts for you, but only you can sign the account holder agreement, and you are the only one who can sign the signature card.   

Please DO NOT give your personal identification or your Social Security Number to a 3rd party who says they can open an account for you without contacting the Consumer Protection services in the state where the business is located and in your own state to check out the service.   

Consumer Protection services are often located in the office of the State Attorney General.  You will find a list of State Attorney General web sites here: US Attorneys GeneralYou can also use the search phrase "[name of your state] consumer protection service". 

There are services that can have a new account packet sent to you; this is not the same thing as saying they will open your bank account for you. 

Guess what - Agreements aren't really all that hard to read.  Here are just some (not all) of the things you want to look for:  

1.       Charges - what are they, how often do they occur, how do you have to pay them, what do they cover, can the rates be increased, how do you stop them if you don't want the service anymore? 

2.       Disputes - in what court are they held?  The one down the street from you, or one that is just over the state line, or one that is 3,000 miles away meaning you will have to hire an out-of-state attorney whom you will never see? 

3.       What kind of information do they want from you?  Your Social Security Number, all your banking information, the blood type of your first born child?  Why do they need it?  Who are they that you should you trust them with your personal information?  How is it protected?  It's all very fine and dandy that you can send them the information in an encrypted (scrambled) format over the Internet, but then what?  What kind of in-house security do they have that controls the usage and storage of your information?

4.       What do they do with your contact information - name, address, email address, telephone number?  Do they share it with 3rd parties (read sell it to 3rd parties)?  Do they state that they will do this whether you agree to it or not?  We've seen a clause added to a fair number of agreements lately stating (and I'm just paraphrasing here) that if you sign the agreement, your information will go to 3rd party advertisers whether you like it or not, and you cannot object.  [Don't confuse this with handing over information in a legal issue; that's a different situation altogether.] 

5.       How do you get out of the contract?  Are you locked in to paying a recurring charge for a given amount of time even if you no longer desire to retain the service?  Do you have to pay a penalty to vacate the contract? 

Your homework: Go out on the Internet and look for pre-paid cards and places that offer bank accounts for people who don't have bank accounts for one reason or another.  Surf for other kinds of services, too!  Read the Agreements.  Some links to Agreements, Terms & Conditions, Terms of Service (look for similar words) may be hard to find, while others are plainly listed at the bottom of the page.  Take a moment to decide which ones make you feel comfortable and which ones give you that feeling that you just want to run in the other direction as fast as you can. 

Once you get used to reading agreements you'll be more keenly aware of contract conditions that may create more financial damage than benefit.  NEVER BE AFRAID TO ASK QUESTIONS.  The service provider is asking you to agree to the way he wants things done, so never agree to anything about which you have any questions or any uncertainty.  The contract will still be there tomorrow, so sleep on it and make a few phone calls to talk to friends and family about their contract experiences. 

When the time comes to make decisions: After you've zeroed in on the key clauses that affect your relationship with the service provider, go back and re-read the agreement in full so you can begin making an informed decision about whether or not the service is right for you, if it will make your life easier, if it will produce a financial benefit, and whether or not the charges fit into your budget.

When in doubt, consult a Contract Attorney: Believe it or not, a consultation with an attorney does not always cost a week's worth of groceries.  Some attorneys break consultation fees down into 1/2-hour increments or less. 

Open the phone book, look for business / civil attorneys, find one who specializes in contract law.  Ask how much he will charge to review a [number of pages] Agreement for ___________ and explain to you the parts you don't understand, and answer the questions you didn't know to ask.




We are not attorneys and don't pretend to be.  In our experience, the information and guidance offered on this site have proven to be effective; however, we always recommend that you consult with an attorney.

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