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SMART CONSUMER: It's a big mistake not to read the small print

Patrick is a pensioner who has never been late with any payments in his life or owed money to service providers.

When he decided to cancel his TV subscription service and get a dish instead, he simply called the company and told them so. But he was advised that he had to give 30 days' notice to cancel as per his subscription agreement.

Patrick says: "I had never signed an agreement." So he didn't think he should pay for the extra 30 days.

Letters arrived for the balance of one month due, which was then increased by a €10 late payment fee.

Then he received a debt notification letter, stating that if he didn't agree within five days to pay, the legal department would issue proceedings.

Patrick felt "upset and intimidated" and says he agreed to the payment so that the situation would come to an end.

Such heavy-handed tactics employed by many companies leave a lot to be desired.

But did Patrick have an agreement and was he liable to pay that extra month in lieu of giving 30 days' notice?

In short, yes he was.

You may not read them and you may not even know they are there. But when you sign up for a service such as for TV or phone, you are entering into a contract with the service provider and in doing so you are agreeing to the terms and conditions they set.

You may simply have ticked a box saying that you agree to the terms but have no idea what they contain.

In an ideal world they would be easy to understand and made very clear to you up front.

In our world, if you don't read them, then at least ask or double-check one very important thing: how do I cancel?

Your contract with a mobile phone or TV services provider will typically last 12 months but some mobile phone contracts are 18 months, 24 months or even 36 months long.

This means that you are 'locked in' to the contract for that period and if you pull out in the middle of it, you will be penalised. This usually involves having to pay the monthly recurring charges owed up until the end of the contract period.

If you want to cancel mid-term your only hope is that the service provider makes a significant change to the deal, say they stop a particular service or drop a channel for example, as then they have breached their contract with you and you can pull out without penalty.

But even in that instance you'll still need to give notice before you quit (and it can be anything from a week to a month), so check the terms and conditions to see how long you have.

Another option is to downgrade or change the tariff or package you are on, as this might save you money or suit you better. Here again though there may be a term saying you can only do this after a certain period, for example six months after you sign up.

You can of course leave the contract when the term is up, but here is the sting: you'll have to give around 30 days' notice to do so.

This means you should give your notice in writing to cancel just before the last month of your contract term. If you wait until the contract period is up, you'll have to pay an extra month as your 30-day notice period.

When it comes to terms and conditions the devil really is in the detail.

Do I have a case even if my warranty has expired?

Q Orla contacted Smart Consumer about a washing machine she bought in Ace Domestic, Co Meath in August 2009 for just under €400.

In February of this year, she noticed "when I set it for any wash, 40, 60 or even an odd 90 degree wash, that the water is not heating up at all and the glass on door is always cold."

So she contacted the retailer who "told me they would have to charge me €70 to come out and look at it, but that really I should be dealing with the manufacturer about it." But Orla's manufacturer's warranty had expired after one year.

"I really can't afford this call-out charge," says Orla, "but given that the washing machine is only 18 months old, what case do I have?"

A Orla has a good case, because although her manufacturer's warranty is up, she still has her statutory rights and the retailer has the obligation of providing them.

If the machine can reasonably be expected to still work after 18 months, they are obliged to provide her with a remedy. A free repair would be a good place to start.

Her rights under the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act 1980 entitled her to this for a product that is defective, and she should not have to pay for a remedy.

Smart Consumer contacted Ace Domestic who got on the case. They subsequently fixed Orla's washing machine free of charge.

"I finally have a heated wash again", says a relieved Orla.

Chic, cosy comfort for your pup

If nothing but the best will do for your four-legged friend, you'll be happy to know that discount shopping at Kildare village won't mean a discount in comfort for your dog.

Go to the tourist information centre to ask about this new free service. Your dog can be put in one of the cosy kennels, which have been described as a "suitably chic environment"!

Cancelling private health insurance

Maybe you can't afford to pay for private health insurance any more or want to switch to a better deal with another provider. When it comes to opting out of your policy, you can do so at any time if you're with Aviva or Quinn, and there is no penalty.

But pulling out has become more difficult for VHI customers, as the company has recently changed it's rules on cancelling contracts.

Now, if you cancel your VHI policy mid-term, you will be penalised. You'll have to pay the health insurance levy (calculated on a pro-rata basis), which is €205 for adults and €66 for children, plus a fee of €50. If a claim has been paid on your policy, you'll have to pay the outstanding premium owed up to the next renewal date.

Chemist concern

The Irish Pharmacy Union is concerned at the number of people 'self diagnosing' online and suggests popping into your local pharmacist for free confidential advice instead. Go to watercooleradvice.ie for more.

Irish Independent