When Alluring Offers Promise Too Much, Check the Fine Print

Remember Ernestine, the old-fashioned telephone operator who became one of Lily Tomlin's most popular characters? With her sausage-rolled hair and platform shoes, Ernestine personified a simpler time when Ma Bell still held a monopoly on telephone service. "You are dealing with the phone company," she would say with a gleeful snort. "We are omnipotent." The line never failed to make audiences laugh.

Today, as telephone companies compete aggressively by offering a confusing array of come-ons and bargains, the quaint idea of omnipotence and simplicity doesn't seem quite so laughable. As customers bounce from AT&T to MCI to Sprint and back again, wooed by lower long-distance rates, free minutes, frequent-flyer miles, and even checks for $100, many find themselves dogged by a persistent question: Could I be getting a better deal somewhere else? That uncertainty will increase when carriers begin competing for local service later this year.

How simple the telephone used to be, with its easy-to-read bills and its network of real-life Ernestines, ready to help. How complicated it has become, forcing customers to spend time - often lots and lots of time - analyzing choices and reading the fine print that spells out all the "terms and conditions."

Ah, the fine print. Once reserved primarily for legal documents and product warranties, it now shows up everywhere - not just in ads for phone companies but in promotions for airlines, banks, credit cards, and on-line services. Consider this small-print line in an ad for AT&T's Internet service: "Five-hour offer limited to one AT&T WorldNet account per billed telephone number presubscribed to AT&T for residential customers and per qualified user for business customers and requires minimum of one hour of usage per month."

Statements like that could prompt a gentle warning: Beware of any "good deal" that comes with an asterisk attached. Because what the bold print at the top of an ad promises, the fine print at the bottom can take away, or at least seriously restrict.

Nor are phone companies the only culprits in creating confusion. Before ATMs largely replaced bank tellers, account-holders could depend on someone behind the counter - the bank's equivalent of Ernestine - to answer questions. Now, in a more automated, less personal world, customers are increasingly on their own to figure out constantly changing rates and fees.

My bank recently sent a 46-page booklet - fine print, naturally - spelling out its "account agreements," "cash reserve agreements," "funds availability policies," and "fee schedules." Another bank sent a 27-page brochure titled "Electronic Fund Transfer Disclosure and Card Agreement." Not exactly beach reading.

Then there's the fine print generated by credit-card companies. One sent a four-page mailing this month just to explain its policies on rental-car insurance coverage. Similarly, follow the asterisk to the bottom of an airline ad and you might discover that a $49 round-trip fare is only valid for travel on alternate Thursdays between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. in months beginning with M.

So much to read, so little time.

Time is money, the old saying goes. But when it takes too much time to (maybe) save a little money, who really wins? Not necessarily the customer. When "bargains" come with nonmonetary price tags attached, it's a reminder that another timeworn phrase, "There's no such thing as a free lunch," still holds true.

If trends continue, a growth industry may spring up, filled with fine-print consultants ready to advise clients on the best deal in banks, phone companies, and airlines. And adult-education programs might offer classes in "How to Read Your Telephone Bills, Bank Statements, and Frequent Flyer Award Summaries."

Thoreau had the right idea: "Simplify, simplify." It's enough to make a bewildered consumer send a few pleas to corporate leaders and marketing strategists: Tell it to us straight. Limit the fine print. And while you're at it - bring back Ernestine and a more personal touch.

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