We’ve all been there. Maybe we’re signing up for a cable package, or renting a car or opening a bank account. We sign a contract with a service provider — usually a large company — without really reading, or fully processing, its fine print.
And as some of us have subsequently found out, sometimes what we think is a straightforward agreement isn’t quite so straightforward. Maybe a monthly payment goes up unexpectedly, or there are additional fees tacked onto a bill that come as a surprise.
Consumers can be understandably confused and at a loss on what their rights are and how to confront the issue. For certain Middle Tennesseans who fall within an income threshold, Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee of the Cumberlands — where I’m an attorney — is able to provide legal guidance and assistance.
In general, it’s important to keep in mind that having a contract doesn’t always mean that your payment is fixed. However, if a company raises your rates unexpectedly, you might have the right to end your contract with that company after taking certain steps.
Sometimes, companies will give themselves the right to increase certain rates during the contract without it being considered a “change” to the contract. Here’s an example in a major cable provider’s contract: “[F]ees, including Broadcast TV Fee (currently up to XX/mo.), Regional Sports Fee (currently up to XX/mo.) … are extra, such charges and fees are subject to change during and after the term of this Agreement.”
Although the company has agreed to charge you a set rate for your cable package, some fees are out of the cable company’s control. If this clause is in your contract, the company probably can increase your rate.
Should you dispute charge increases if your contract says they can go up? Maybe. Sometimes, you can call to negotiate with the company if you’ve been a long-term customer. With so many options out there, a company might be willing to work with you to keep you as a customer.
You can also look at the termination fee. The same contract referenced above charges $10 for each month of the contract remaining when the customer terminates the deal. If you’re close to the end of your contract, the savings of moving to another company might outweigh the termination fee you have to pay.
Other contracts either lock in your rate or give you the option to choose to pay the increased amount or cancel your contract.
If you’re upset about a rate increase and have a right to dispute the change, how do you go about that? All disputes should be made in writing, usually by letter. Explain to the company that you don’t want them to increase your rate and that if they don’t fix it, you’re going to cancel the contract.
Want to know more about your rights in contracts with big companies? Visit www.las.org or come to one of our free monthly legal clinics. At our clinics, you can get a brief consult with a private attorney at no cost.
Zac Oswald is the managing attorney of Legal Aid Society’s Gallatin office, practicing Housing and Consumer Law, and the team lead of the firm’s Housing Practice Group. The non-profit Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands advocates for fairness and justice under the law. It serves 48 counties from offices in Clarksville, Columbia, Cookeville, Gallatin, Murfreesboro, Nashville, Oak Ridge and Tullahoma.