Guess Where Banks Are Sticking Their Fine Print Now?

Banks are getting sneakier in hiding the fine print terms and conditions that goes into their marketing.

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When I lived in a studio apartment with no closets after college, I got really good at finding inventive ways to stash unsightly stuff like drain cleaner and dirty laundry out of sight. Maybe I should have looked to banks for inspiration.

A financial trade publication recently conducted a case study of a direct-mail marketing brochure that included a “coupon” offering new account holders a $150 sign-up bonus. It says: “Probably the best feature of the entire mail piece and the factor that makes the coupon ideal: it covers up all the disclaimer copy. Fine print is revealed only when the coupon device is lifted off the page.”

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Now you see it, now you don’t.

Chase, the bank that issued the mailing, says it’s more convenient for people to have the disclosures there. “Better to have them right on the coupon,” Chase spokesman Tom Kelly says, pointing out that the mailer does tell recipients that the disclaimers are underneath. “It’s flagged.”

It’s understandable that banks and other businesses aren’t wild about fine print in their marketing: The disclosures are distracting and take away from the message they’re trying to deliver. But when it comes to financial products, that teeny-tiny type conveys more important details than “batteries not included.” A less-is-more approach can leave consumers feeling tricked if they miss something that’s buried in the fine print.

That’s especially true if that fine print is especially hard to locate. “At a number of smaller banks, the only place you can find their fees is if you’re detective enough to scroll through the site map,” says Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director at U.S. PIRG.

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In recent research projects, both U.S. PIRG and Pew Charitable Trusts found that it can be extremely difficult to track down all of the pertinent information about bank account terms and fees. In a survey of 12 big banks’ websites, Pew looked for nine major account terms, like the amount needed to open an account and the monthly maintenance fee. At seven banks, at least one of those items couldn’t be found anywhere at all on the bank website. At HSBC and BB&T, six of the nine terms could only be found by visiting a branch in person or couldn’t be found at all.

Bottom line: Keep your eyes open. That fine print could be anywhere — or nowhere at all.