Consumer Reports explains what could happen when you agree to an arbitration clause

ByNydia Han and Heather Grubola via WPVI logo
Wednesday, July 6, 2022
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Consumer Reports explains what you could be missing in the fine print when you don't read an agreement before you sign it.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- What could you be missing in the fine print when you don't read an agreement before you sign it? A clause that forces consumers to resolve disputes by going to arbitration is often buried in that tiny print.

Consumer Reports spoke to a woman who spent years fighting for her right to sue.

Kathy Greiner was a DIRECTV customer for five years until her equipment stopped working. She switched providers and thought the issue was over. But she thought wrong.

"They said you're going to have a fee of $240. They took the money out of my account. It just seemed wrong," she said.

Citing early cancellation fees, DIRECTV said the two-year service commitment was in its agreement.

"I never signed anything. I never saw that anywhere," said Greiner.

Greiner filed a class action lawsuit in California in 2008, saying the company failed to disclose early cancellation fees.

DIRECTV asked the court to resolve the case through arbitration and after seven years of rulings and appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of DIRECTV.

Consumer Reports says this has had sweeping implications for consumers.

"Arbitration deprives you of your right to a day in court to challenge any corporate wrongdoing. It leaves the consumer without a lot of recourse," said Justin Brookman of Consumer Reports.

Consumer Reports says companies like DIRECTV may have a motive for settling disputes through arbitration. From 2004 to 2010, DIRECTV assessed early cancellation fees to more than 700,000 subscribers in California alone, totaling $82 million. During that same period it paid just $16,000 to arbitration claimants.

"They're lining their pockets while consumers can't fight back effectively. It's outrageous," said Brookman.

DIRECTV has since changed ownership and when Consumer Reports asked for comment on Greiner's case, they had this to say: "We offer multiple service options to meet customers' preferences."

Greiner can't tell us whether she ever got her money back, but does say her claim was resolved.

"I do feel that our hands are tied when we agree to these contracts," she said.

So what can you do to protect yourself? Try to buy or use products that don't require arbitration, which means reading through terms and agreements, and use social media to complain about arbitration. Some companies have changed their legal terms as a result.