October, 2009 – Service Agreements

Like many other people, I enjoy the convenience of having my bills paid online, of ordering direct from independent or chain bookstores, of selling no longer needed items or special designer finds at auction sites.  Keeping up with my daughter’s life via both the phone and Facebook combine to soothe my motherly sensitivities.  In spare moments, I even play a few mindless games, telling myself it’s relaxing and relatively harmless. 

            What I don’t enjoy about the internet is the plethora of “service” or “use” agreements one is forced to scroll past in order to register, use, or change something on dozens of sites.  Today I received a notice from WAMU-soon-to-be-Chase.  This transition has been going on for a year and in California I can access services that aren’t available in Washington state, for example, leaving me wondering if the soon-to-be will, in fact, be in my favor. 

            The message in today’s email included a required reading of an Online Service Agreement.  I scrolled, and rolled, and scanned, as the agreement went on and on.  Curious, I transferred it to my Microsoft word file and then checked the word count.  15,000 plus words, that is what the agreement contained.  A semi fast reader, wadding through the dense legalese, could get through it in about three-quarters of an hour.  But who would?  And, in order for it to be meaningful, are we not obligated to know what it says in detail.  That task would require a four-year degree in banking and business management. 

            It is possible that buried in those 15,000 words, my soon-to-be bank is planning on exercising an option of charging me new fees for every online transfer of funds from one account to another, of raising my credit card rates from reasonable to astronomical at every new moon, or borrowing so heavily from my savings that I must give them 36 hours notice before trying to make a substantial withdrawal.  Concern for these possibilities forced me to review the document and to attempt an understanding of phrases like: “If you subscribed to the PFM Service via the Online Service on or after August 27, 2005, the PFM Service Fee is $9.95 each month, except as otherwise noted below. If you accessed Chase.com via your PFM Software prior to March 26, 2006, your PFM Service Fees as of such date (if any) will continue to apply unless you were a QuickBooks® business user, in which case, your PFM Service Fee will be $9.95”.

            I am a teacher and relatively intelligent although I’d never claim the latter because of the former.  Still, I am generally able to decipher even the most scatalogical scribblings of my students. Yet, user agreements continue to befuddle.  Are they designed that way, and solely for the purpose of either hiding a corporate intention or protecting a corporate derriere?  I don’t know, and I’ll have to let you know once I’ve finished reading the service agreement. Check back next year, by which time my soon-to-be new bank will probably have been purchased by another, more word-laden corporation and we’ll start all over.


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