The Checkout

Fine Print Hide & Seek

The ultimate in fine print arrived at my house earlier this week: a letter from Verizon touting its FiOS TV service.

Now that my county, Arlington, has given its approval to Verizon to offer its TV service as a rival to Comcast's cable system, Verizon promotions have been arriving almost daily at our house. The one that really caught my eye came in a big 8-by-11 envelope stamped "priority delivery" and "important information inside." It looked like an urgent, overnight delivery. Needless to say, that envelope didn't get automatically thrown into the trash. Inside, there was a letter about the TV service. It had all the promotional gobbledygook you would expect, including this bold sentence at the top: "Switch to the power of fiber optics for $39.95 a month." That sum caught my eye, since it's considerably less than we are paying for our cable TV service. I read the front page and was definitely interested. But it was only when I got to the bottom of the letter that I began to wonder about the deal's value. Because there -- in very, very, very, tiny print -- was this note: "See reverse side for important Consumer Information." And that usually means "Watch out; there are lots of strings attached."

I turned the page over, looking for the catch, but I couldn't find any information, at least initially. The top 10 inches of the back page were completely blank. I finally spotted the "important" information at the very bottom of the page in a print so small you needed a magnifying glass on top of reading glasses to read it (See the image below). And indeed there was a catch: "extra charges apply for Set Top Box..." Since you need a set top box to get the $39.95 premier package, that means it will cost $3.95 more per TV to get the service (and if you want high-definition, that charge grows to $9.95 per TV). Of course, none of those fees are listed in the fine print. For that information, you have to call Verizon or visit its Web site.

Now it turned out that the package, even with the added fees, was still a good deal. So, in the interest of full disclosure, I admit I signed up for it. (Installation is in a couple of weeks). But that made me even more curious about why Verizon was trying to hide those added fees? And was that obfuscation also causing the incredibly long hold times when you try to sign up via the phone? I presume everyone has to ask about the extra fees, so it probably takes agents longer to process each new account.

Chris McKay, Verizon's regional marketing director, said the point of the letter was not to tell consumers every detail about a service, but rather to "engage in a conversation" to prompt the consumer to call and make additional inquiries. The call center, he said, is where the trained customer-service reps "will make everything crystal clear."

McKay said the "important consumer information" was the standard legal disclaimer -- in the standard size font -- that's on all Verizon FiOS TV promotions. "I will take under consideration the size of the print" for that particular mailing, McKay said.

But even if he were to enlarge it, he said he isn't sure how many people would read it. "Everybody reads these pieces at different levels. ... Most just read the headlines and call. Even if I did put more specifics in the body of the letter ... or put it in bold text in the middle of the page," the vast majority of customers would still call in for a better explanation."

As for the long hold times, McKay said that as fast as Verizon can, it is training customer service reps to handle all the FiOS TV queries. The company doesn't want to put just any agent on the calls, he said, since there are, after all, lots of questions that need to be answered.

Your thoughts?

Verizon FiOS offer puts some key pricing information in the fine print on the bottom of the back page.

By  |  August 11, 2006; 7:10 AM ET Customer Service
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I work in the mutual fund industry, and know quite a bit about consumer disclosure, generally. One of the reasons mutual fund disclosure is so tightly regulated is to prevent this fine print method of hiding important details about the transaction. While it is true that you can't force people to read the disclosure, whether it is about a financial product or cable service, it shouldn't be presented in a way that actually prevents reading it. My experience (particularly with mutual fund advertising) suggests that using the micro-font trick, as Verizon has done in your case, means there is something to hide about the details of the offer. Although this doesn't rise to the level of actual "fraud," it certainly borders on "deception."

Posted by: Deedle | August 11, 2006 8:44 AM

Verizon customer service, "will make everything crystal clear"? Those two phrases don't belong together.

Of course, there's also this experience: "Hello, Comcast? I'm interested in XXX offer I received in the mail."
"Sorry, you don't qualify for that promotional price."
"So why on earth are you sending me this junk?"

Posted by: tallbear | August 11, 2006 8:56 AM

at least you're living in a county that allows cable competition. I'm in Montgomery County, where Comcast pulls the strings. We've got Verizon Fios (and love it), but Verizon TV is still a dream. We dumped Comcast for DirecTV as soon as they started carrying local channels, but Fios TV less compressed picture looks better than satellite. And every market that FIOS TV enters sees competitors rates fall, so even non-switchers win.

BTW, I've found the dedicated Fios customer service reps know about their product and are, best of all, empowered to actually solve (some) problems .

Posted by: wombat | August 11, 2006 9:26 AM

Go Satellite and don't look back. You probably won't save any money, but once you're set up, you'll never have to wait for a cable company technician "from noon until 5PM" again. Sure, satellite companies offer set top box fees too, and fees for just about everything else, but you don't have to wait until the next business day for someone to address your concerns, and the service infrastructure is much more responsive.

Posted by: MV resident | August 11, 2006 9:30 AM

Is this the first time you've ever seen fine print? You sure make it seem that way. I can't remember the last time a week went by where I didn't see a Comcast ad talking about their great rates, with at least two novels worth of fine print at the bottom of the page. I think it is great that Verizon, or any company for that matter, will be offering some competition to cable in the DC area. Maybe this will finally curb Comcast's hidden fees and out of control price hikes.

Posted by: it's_about_time | August 11, 2006 9:37 AM

Just last week I received what appeared to be a bill from a firm in Baltimore. It stated that I had to pay the bill to continue to receive the magazine subscription without interruption and had a very convincing appearance that this was indeed legitimate. But there's the rub - it wasn't a legitimate bill. It was purely a subscription made up very much to appear as a bill with just enough verbage (all three lines of it) that stated that it was a subscription offer. It was even so misleading in content that the magazine that they said I would stop receiving was one that I had NEVER received. Also, the price for this magazine subscription was in the 3 digit range, so it immediately caught my eye as being fishy.

Why is it that these companies can get away with this obviously blatant attempts to fool someone into an expensive subscription? Isn't this against some sort of law? If it isn't, it should be.

Posted by: Michael | August 11, 2006 9:53 AM

I received the same ad and immediately started looking for the added fees. Experience has taught me that no advertised price is the price you actually pay. From cell phones to cable TV the consumer is always billed for more than the advertised rate. This applies even to items we buy off the shelf in stores. So let the buyer beware!

An educated consumer is the best although I must say that the industry's use of such tactics is insulting to my intelligence. That said, they wouldn't do it if it didn't work, so I guess most consumers just don't care. Even you exhibited the behavior they wanted, the price got you to look!

I'm a DirectTV subscriber with three set top boxes, one of them HD. The FiosTV rate comes to only about $4 less than sattelite, without the same level of movie channel access. Add to that the fact that I'd have to pay rent for the HD set top box (I own my HD box) and the rates per year are much higher. I love competition, but it doesn't make sense to switch to a more expensive service.

Posted by: Paul | August 11, 2006 9:56 AM

The fine print ads can be annoying and are a bit deceiving, but if you've had experience with a cable provider by now you should know that you pay extra for any necessary hardware (and there's almost always necessary hardware). Don't forget the activation fee's, tech fee's... "installation" fee's, where they drive to your house and plug it in as if you couldn't do it yourself, then want to charge you for it.

Posted by: Five | August 11, 2006 10:09 AM

Wombat and other MoCo residents: Verizon just got smacked down by a (federal?) judge for not applying for a franchise in MoCo and suing to do business there without a franchise agreement with the county. The judge ORDERED them to apply, so expect FIOS TV to be coming quite soon! I can't wait to dump Comco$t, the incompetent and greedy 64$+47d5.

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | August 11, 2006 10:26 AM

Despite the fine-print problems, I'm delighted to hear a cable alternative could be coming to Arlington. My Comcast cable quality has been poor (digital artifacts/freezes in an analog signal) for at least 2 months. Until recently, Comcast kept trying to tell me it was a problem with my TV; only in the last week have they admitted it's an "area problem."

On top of that, I'm now on my 5th or 6th call to them waiting for an update - after being told on each prior call that "someone will be back to you within 24 hours," which never happened.

Caroline, sounds like you're getting the service...please post an update with how well it works!

Posted by: bc | August 11, 2006 10:31 AM

bc: As I learned last week from the Comcast cable tech, the artifacts/freezing stemmed from the recent move of some channels from the analog range to the digital range having unintended consequences on overall service quality. According to the tech, it was supposed to be fixed by the end of this week "but he wouldn't bet on it" since they had said the week before it was already fixed, but he knew that to be false.

Posted by: Chris | August 11, 2006 10:53 AM

The problem of loud music while shopping has now affected the Whole Foods stores. In the state of the art flagship store in Austin, TX there is constantly loud techno or rock music, even on a Sunday morning, which makes veggie shopping like going to a rock concert. Suggestions to turn the music down to a reasonable level are not always followed, and it's a bother to have to begin shopping that way. I don't know if there is a misguided business plan here (see Jason's The Plan) or simply letting employees with a taste for loud music run the show. Suggestions welcome for how to get a healthy aural environment along with healthy food.

Posted by: John Robertson | August 11, 2006 11:31 AM

The problem of loud music while shopping has now affected the Whole Foods stores. In the state of the art flagship store in Austin, TX there is constantly loud techno or rock music, even on a Sunday morning, which makes veggie shopping like going to a rock concert. Suggestions to turn the music down to a reasonable level are not always followed, and it's a bother to have to begin shopping that way. I don't know if there is a misguided business plan here (see Jason's The Plan) or simply letting employees with a taste for loud music run the show. Suggestions welcome for how to get a healthy aural environment along with healthy food.

Posted by: John Robertson | August 11, 2006 11:32 AM

I got Verizon FIOS TV last month!!! Works great. Got a free set top box for a year and after a year I own it deal. So my cost is the $39.99 plus taxes etc advertisement. Always shop before using the advertising from the company, usually a third party middle man will offer you a better deal. They get a cut and they give you a piece of their cut in some manner.

Even if it was a bad deal, I would still have paid up. I hate Comcast with a passion and I was locked in for the past 2 years with them. DirectTV doesn't like big trees.....

Posted by: PTT | August 11, 2006 11:53 AM

Cox digital cable does the same thing with the extra fee for the digital cable box (and various other extra fees).

Posted by: Jay | August 11, 2006 12:00 PM

Note to John Robertson:

Shop somewhere else and encourage others to do likewise. Whole Foods stores will learn their lesson.

Posted by: Steve | August 11, 2006 12:40 PM

Cosmic, Your interpretation of what's happening in Montgomery County is not accurate.

In court, Verizon was not "smacked down" for failure to submit a franchise application. Indeed, the judge went out of his way to note that Verizon had to file it "without prejudice" or impact to the case. The reasons Verizon didn't file are technical (they stood to lose a lot of money if MC didn't negotiate in good faith by the franchise process deadline) and not due to intent.

You can find a better analysis and continuing coverage in my blog, the Libes Libation:

Posted by: Don Libes | August 11, 2006 12:42 PM

I live in Columbia and have had Verizon Fios for about 10 weeks now. I too was subjected to all the adds, but I found that it didn't take too much effort to find out the additional fees. The TV service (2 TVs no HD) is a little less expensive than Comcast, but the picture quality and realiability is significantly better. I looked into the sattelites but they would only give me the Baltimore stations so that was an immediate show stopper. The internet service is significantly less expensive the Comcast and is much faster than DSL (although not as fast as Comcast). However, the techs that set me up said that eventually the speed will be increased (5 to 10 download). Lastly since I'm in a 410 area code and over 50% of the people I call are in 301 or 703 (and 202 for my job) I have the Freedom Essential plan and don't have to worry about the excessively expensive 'local' long-distance charges. There is also a small discount for signing up for all 3 services.

Lastly it is key to remember that Fios phone service runs on your household electricity with a battery backup. If you loose power you can't talk on the phone forever (there is also an emergancy button that will give you power for 1 last phone call).

Posted by: Mike | August 11, 2006 1:01 PM

RCN (Star Power) is in Montgomery County (at least in Silver Spring) as well.

We had the same problem with the signal to HD channels with Comcast, but it wasn't any new station, it was the local ABC and NBC stations. We also lost signal to a number of stations we were subscribed to. When RCN came out with a good deal and an actual person to call (no 1-800) we readily called, got quoted a much better deal for cable, phone and internet, with free installation and we promptly switched. Helped that the tech came out 2 days after we called.

Posted by: Silver Spring | August 11, 2006 1:10 PM

Agree with Deedle, it does look like deception but unless there's a vigilant regulator nothing will stop it. I work for an insurance company, and any kind of significant disclosure is regulated as to font size, sometimes coming with requirements that a separate piece of paper is required if the information is significant enough. Some consumers may spend more per year on phone and cable services than they do on insurance, esp if they don't drive, so you would think there would be more regulation of those industries' practices.

Posted by: Anon | August 11, 2006 1:12 PM

Perhaps more annoying are Verizon's ads for DSL. The small print informs you of a nearly three dollar charge for fees. Since paying the fees is not voluntary, it's pretty absurd for them to claim the rate for DSL is $14.95 The irony as you noted with the TV service is that the full rate if disclosed honestly is pretty price competitive.

It as though they have some hidden need not to be straight forward.

Posted by: CW | August 11, 2006 1:17 PM

Oh, great. And I thought I was the only one getting a lousy signal for HD stations from my cable company (in this case Cox). Don't know how long Fairfax County will take to get FIOS, but I hope it's soon. I bought my first HDTV two weeks ago, and Cox is still promising to get me all the stations I signed up for but haven't seen yet.

Yesterday I called and again got a no-take-charge person in Bangladesh or someplace giving me a load of hooey about how they were working on it. So today I walked into the Cox customer outlet in Kingstowne and told them in no uncertain terms how I was about to bring in my cable boxes and get a dish system if they didn't get this straightened out. The rep was on the phone with dispatch within 30 seconds.

Posted by: Gene | August 11, 2006 1:28 PM

To all of you who are switching to Verizon FIOS: I wish you well, and hope your experience with customer service is better than ours has been with Verizon DSL and Verizon Wireless. In oher words, I hope that Verizon FIOS provides customer service, instead of endless phone transfers that accomplish nothing.

We're moving back to Cox broadband and switching our phone service to Cox. Not that Cox customer service is great. It's diffident. But, sad to say, it's better than Verizon's customer service. I'd rather be in the customer service frying pan than in the customer service fire.

Posted by: Mister Methane | August 11, 2006 2:03 PM

I've lived in DC, in the Mt Vernon Square area, since May of 2000 and have had RCN/Starpower for phone/cable/Internet access almost the entire time. I will never look back nor will I ever have a Verizon or ComCast service unless I am absolutely forced to. I've never had ANY break-down or interruption problems with RCN/Starpower.....wait, there were TWO incidents where I lost phone and then phone & cable service. RCN/Starpower sent a technician out immediately and, in each case he/she found that the service had been tampered with/disconnected at the building's telecom it turned out, in BOTH cases, a Verizon or ComCast service technician had been in to do an adjacent tenant's install in my building at EXACTLY the same time as the outage.....Gee, I wonder what happened there?!!?

Posted by: JESIII | August 11, 2006 2:06 PM

Why shouldn't there be a law against this kind of deception? Because it will only dumb us down further. Consumers need to start taking a little responsibility and get away from the idea that government can solve all of our problems.

Posted by: Martin | August 11, 2006 2:07 PM

I was in the process of moving when Fios first came out, and it sounded good, so I opted to give it a shot. They couldn't give me an appointment for two weeks though. I thought about it and agreed to wait- it sounded like it might be worth it. Two weeks came and went, and no one showed up. I called to find out what was going on, and they said they no appointment on record, but they could schedule me for an installation visit- in another two weeks. I told them what they could do with their Fibers after that. This is only one of the reasons I have gone out of my way to not do business with Verizon.

Posted by: D | August 11, 2006 2:08 PM

Talk talk talk - doesn't mean anything unless you get a written contract. I had a nightmare with Comcast which kept uping my fees because the "system" lost my promotional rate - I gave up and dropped it. My point - get it in writing, don't believe the sales reps on the phone!

Posted by: Mike Beaty | August 11, 2006 2:15 PM

Currently have Verizon DSL and have been generally quite happy with the service, let alone the speed/price ratio. They were also fairly upfront about the add'tl fees (which I expect from any phone company).

Used to have Starpower, and it was terrible.

Guess the only lesson is that not everyone's mileage is the same.

Posted by: bc | August 11, 2006 2:18 PM

We signed up for FiOS internet service in the spring and liked it. About a month ago, a Verizon representative was canvassing the neighborhood and made us an offer that was hard to turn down. It was $15 less than what we were paying for the same (basic-plus) service from Comcast and they threw in the cable box for free. The installation went very smoothly. The most satisfying call I've ever made was the one in which I cancelled my Comcast service.

Posted by: Dan | August 11, 2006 3:45 PM

Question on the FiOS TV service. Are they going to charge you USF Charge? I would assume so, but I'm not sure how much it would be.

Posted by: Michael Camiolo | August 11, 2006 4:18 PM

"The smallest print needs the largest magnifying glass" as my mother says.

Posted by: JG | August 11, 2006 11:00 PM

chris & bc: I'm so glad you brought that up. The "freeze" problem on Comcast has been making me nuts for a couple of months. About a month ago Comcast sent a tech to my house to replace a splitter (which really did look shot), and that didn't resolve the issue. I haven't had time to deal with them again, so I didn't know whether it was just my problem or a regional thing. I'm glad to hear someone's working on it.

All that being said, though, until this recent glitch, I've been pretty happy with Comcast cable (I have digital cable & DVR), and very happy with their internet service. I hope they do get some competition in Montgomery County, but I won't be switching.

Posted by: jane | August 15, 2006 9:56 AM

Comcast in Montgomery County MD used to be the only provider of boadband in our area since DSL was not available. Their customer service was amazingly terrible (once we had a month and five service visits with no resolution of the problem!) and we promised them that as soon as there was an alternative we would switch. The week Verizon Fios became available we did indeed switch and we are very happy. We don't have the television option, just the broadband. Comcast for broadband alone is more expensive than Comcast Basic with broadband---how monopolistic can the pricing be? Monopolies are terrible. All big companies will try to deceive you if they possibly can, but they usually aren't managed by very bright people so it isn't so hard to figure out what they really are trying to do. The companies managed by intelligent people usually are in innovative areas where they don't need the fine print to sell their products.

Posted by: fios-yes | August 15, 2006 9:59 AM

"The large print giveth and the small print taketh away"
- Tom Waits, "Step Right Up"

Posted by: kdt | August 15, 2006 1:07 PM

When Verizon was still in Hawaii, they had James Earl Jones advertise "free" long distance - no monthly charges if there were no calls. A few months after I signed up, I was billed $3.99 a month even without calls. When I called Verizon they said they had notified me of the change on a previous telephone bill!
Who on earth reads their telephone bill? You look at the total and if it is what you expect, you write out a check and throw the bill in the circular file.

Posted by: Peter L Nelson | August 15, 2006 1:59 PM

Duh, by Federal law, you are allowed to purchase your own set-top box. No company can force you to rent its equipment.

You are easily the dumbest person writing for the WP. The gaps in your knowledge about the most basic issues are incredible. Did you win a contest to get this job?

Posted by: Wheaton, MD | August 16, 2006 12:58 PM

I can't say enough good things about Verizon Fios customer service, when I've needed it, which is almost never, it has been excellent. Maybe it's because Fios is new and they are putting a lot of $$$ into their help desk support or maybe it's because Fios is such a stable broadband and they don't have the issues they've had with DSL and dialup. Their 24/7 help desk, knowledgeable personnel, short wait times have been a real relief from the usual. Also, the one time the network went down, they told me someone would be out the next day at 11 a.m. to fix it. They were there at 9 a.m. and it was fixed by 11 a.m. Very nice -- now where's my Fios TV?

Posted by: Potomac Maryland | August 16, 2006 4:50 PM

Just got off phone with Verizon, they will include 3 rooms/televisions but say i must pay a 19.95 activation fee for any additional televisions. The lady insisited this was an activation fee and had nothing to do with additional wiring.
I am in Howard county looking to replace comcast maybe....

Posted by: Nick | September 13, 2006 1:25 PM

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