Business·Go Public

Frustrated by fine print, car-buying couple learns you don't always get what you pay for

Couple told they should have read the fine print after their new vehicle didn't come with everything they paid for.

Competition Bureau says companies can't rely on fine print to explain changes in what's advertised

Eric Kim, left, and Yondy Lam say they feel 'ripped off' after their Kia Sorento arrived without the LED bar taillights the brochure promised. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

They paid for one thing — but got something else — and when they complained they were told they should have read the fine print. That's the message a car-buying couple says they got from a major automaker after the company's marketing brochure didn't match the vehicle that was delivered.

Getting faked out by fine print is a problem that thousands of Canadians file complaints about every year— citing issues with big ticket items like flights, cars and real estate to smaller ones involving cellphones, pre-approved credit cards and even fast food.

Yondy Lam, left, and Eric Kim, pored over the brochure they were given in the Kia dealership before they chose which model to buy. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Eric Kim and Yondy Lam are speaking out about a loophole they say marred the purchase of their dream car.

"I feel like these car dealerships and these car companies can just get away with whatever they want. It's not like we're buying a pair of socks here," said Lam, who, along with her husband paid more than $37,000 in March for a new 2018 Kia Sorento.

The Mississauga, Ont., couple contacted Go Public about automaker Kia Canada, after what they believe was an unfair use of a disclaimer in the company's advertising. 

Kia Canada told CBC News the brochure, printed in May 2017, was 'accurate and correct at the time of printing'. (Evan Mitui/CBC)

They paid an extra $2,500 for upgrades on their new SUV based on what was in a Kia ad brochure. When they got the vehicle home, they realized it had base model taillights instead of the higher-end ones they paid for in the upgrade.

They figured it was an easy fix and contacted both Kia Canada and the dealership. They were told by both they should have read the fine print that says the company can change almost anything at any time without "notice" or "obligation."

"It's not even over the value of the taillights, it's more we feel ripped off," Kim said.

Eric Kim indicates the halogen taillights on his Kia Sorento. The brochure for the model he and his wife bought promised LED bar taillights, which are worth about $1,000 more. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Automakers like Kia have plenty of company when it comes to including key details in the fine print.

Flights have been advertised for one price while the small-print disclaimer stated the sale price was for comparison purposes only and the final cost would be confirmed during booking.

A number of telecom companies have been in trouble for advertising "unlimited" data, when the small print lists a lot of additional fees. 

And a fast food company that advertised a meal deal for $5, then charged more in different parts of the country, was reprimanded after its disclaimer — which stated "prices may vary" — was hard to read. 

Kia stands by fine print

In an email to Go Public, Kia Canada spokesperson Mark James calls the situation "unfortunate" and says the brochure provided to the couple was outdated and options on vehicle had changed since it was printed.

Eric Kim and his wife Yondy Lam paid more than $37,000 in March for a new 2018 Kia Sorento. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"While Kia Canada's brochures are designed to highlight certain features, they are printed once a year and clearly state that all information contained herein was accurate and correct at the time of printing and that Kia Canada Inc. reserves the right to make changes at any time without notice, and without any obligations as to colours, materials, specifications, features, accessories, packages, models and any applicable programs."

James tells CBC News that customers should confirm a vehicle's features with more than one source before buying, including the company's website and with a dealer.

While Kia Canada sees nothing wrong with its fine print, the dealership did take action. After Go Public contacted the dealer with our questions, Lam and Kim were issued a $1,000 refund to cover the cost of the taillights.

Potentially illegal

The practice of putting important information in the fine print is not only unethical, but can be illegal, according to a lawyer who specializes in competition law.

Daphne Hooper says businesses have an obligation to ensure all promotional materials — print, TV, online — are up to date. She also says expecting customers to have to confirm  the details of what they are getting through different sources is not only unfair, it's risky for the company under the Consumer Protection Act.

Daphne Hooper, a lawyer with Affleck Greene McMurtry LLP, says while small-print disclaimers are common, they can be risky for businesses. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"For instance, here the consumer is looking at the brochure to decide whether to buy the product and in the fine print the merchant is telling them to look elsewhere for more information, that could be a problem," Hooper told Go Public in an interview from the Toronto offices of her firm, Affleck Greene McMurtry LLP.

In Kia's case, the fine print is at the bottom of the last page of the nine-page brochure, in a font that's smaller than the rest of the advertising material.

Hooper says while this kind of disclaimer is common, it can get a business in trouble.

"Under Canadian consumer protection laws, a consumer in Canada should be able to look at an advertisement and understand exactly what it is that they are buying," she says.

A consumer in Canada should be able to look at an advertisement and understand exactly what it is that they are buying.- Daphne Hooper, lawyer

"So if an advertisement says one thing but the product has another thing, that's an issue that the consumer could bring an action against the merchant for."

CBC News asked KIA Canada about a possible legal issue with its fine print under the Competition Act. The company didn't address that in its response.

Canada's Competition Bureau, which monitors advertising practices, also warns companies against this kind of fine print.

The Bureau got more than 2,000 complaints last year on deceptive marketing practices which include disclaimers.

It says fine print is OK if it adds useful information or expands on the general impression conveyed in the body of the advertising, but becomes a problem when it contradicts that impression.

On its website, it says "the potential to mislead consumers increases significantly when fine print or a disclaimer is used to restrict, contradict or somehow negate the message to which it relates."

The federal agency is pushing for changes to how companies use disclaimers, suggesting the disclaimers should use a bigger font, and have predominant placement in the advertising material.

When asked, the bureau wouldn't say if it is investigating Kia Canada after Lam and Kim complained, citing confidentiality rules. 

With files from Jenn Blair

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About the Author

Rosa Marchitelli is a national award winner for her investigative work. As co-host of the CBC News segment Go Public, she has a reputation for asking tough questions and holding companies and individuals to account. Rosa's work is seen across CBC News platforms.


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