Common Bait and Switch Tricks and How to Avoid Them

8 things you can do to escape the bait and switch trap: Internet Scambusters #444

Teaser/Intro: Bait and switch tactics, in which anything from a retail product to a job may be substituted with something more expensive or less attractive, are everywhere.

And if the original, mouthwatering offer is genuine, they may be perfectly legal, even if you’re talked into opting for something quite different.

In this update article, we identify some of the more common bait and switch examples, explain how you can spot them and what you can do to avoid being caught out.

Common Bait and Switch Tricks and How to Avoid Them

Despite recent changes in the law, bait and switch tricks still run rife both in the retail world and beyond.

That’s because, in many cases, the tricksters stay within the law, although that’s not always the case. It depends on your bait and switch definition.

For example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) bait and switch definition refers specifically to advertising.

“Bait advertising,” the FTC explains, “is an alluring but insincere offer to sell a product or service which the advertiser in truth does not intend or want to sell.

“Its purpose is to switch consumers from buying the advertised merchandise in order to sell something else, usually at a higher price or on a basis more advantageous to the advertiser.”

Trouble is, it’s not against the law to use a come-on to lure buyers into the net, provided whoever’s doing it can prove that they did have the merchandise in question, that it was genuinely available and that they made the conditions of its sale clear.

Intent to deceive, however, could be regarded as fraud.

A bait and switch example of this kind of activity happened in California a couple years back, when a carpet cleaning firm advertised its services starting at $50 but then, once they got a foot in the door, inflated their prices, in some cases to $2,000.

The owner pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges and was given probation, hard labor and ordered to repay more than $20,000 to customers.

So, how is that different to a retailer who advertises something at a bargain price, but you arrive to find it’s sold out but the store has a similar item at a much higher price?

Well, look at that ad again and you might see words like “limited stocks,” “closeout,” “no rain-checks,” or even “not at all store locations,” which makes it acceptable within the law, provided the retailer could prove it did have and sell the items at the advertised price.

Even if the item is in stock, there’s nothing to legally prevent a retailer from “upselling” — trying to persuade you to buy a more expensive version or model.

This may be acceptable as long as you’re wise to what’s going on.

But not if the sales person tries to pressure you, perhaps by claiming that the sale item is poor quality, or even calling on a colleague to help bamboozle you into buying something else.

Now we’ve stepped into a gray area of the law. Were they telling you the truth? Did they exert unreasonable pressure?

We’ve previously reported on other questionable bait and switch examples in mortgage and credit card markets and in foreclosure situations.

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However, taking the bait and switch definition at its broadest — basically any attempt to get you to accept something different from what originally attracted you — reveals countless more current examples (legal or not).

Some of them are common and all can be financially painful. For instance:

  • Airline tickets and travel costs. It’s common for airlines and ticket agents to quote a basic price which may increase four- or five-fold by the time taxes and other charges are added.
  • Auto deals. You see a car advertised at a bargain price and may even phone ahead but when you get to the dealer it’s been sold — but, of course, they have more expensive models in stock.
  • Apartment rentals. As above — the realtor tells you the apartment you’re interested in has been leased but there’s another one, which turns out to be smaller and more expensive.
  • Subsidized or even totally-covered college fees and scholarships, which you later learn are dependent on maintaining a minimum grade point average.
  • Contractors who give you a low bid but later “discover” additional issues or tell you about extras that weren’t included in the estimate.
  • Contractors who offer a “free inspection,” which is really just a way of getting in your home and making a sales pitch for their services.
  • A retailer who tells you an advertised item is out of stock but is still available as part of a more expensive package, such as a kit that features other equipment you don’t need or want.
  • Employers who advertise a particular, well-paid job opening but then tell you it’s been filled and offer you a position with lower pay.

As we’ve said, many of these bait and switch examples are perfectly legal, unless the individual or firm can be shown to have intentionally misled you.

So, to avoid being caught in a bait and switch trap, here are some of the things you can do.

  1. Always read the fine print in any ad. Look out for conditions attached to the deal and be alert for wording that suggests the item may not be in stock when you try to buy.
  2. If you’re told the item is out of stock, ask for a rain check unless the ad said these weren’t available.
  3. If someone tries to “upsell,” realize what’s going on and, unless you really want the more costly item and know for sure it’s a good price (that is, it can’t be found cheaper elsewhere), don’t buy.
  4. For expensive items, take a friend who can add some commonsense to any impulse you have to buy.
  5. Don’t agree to open-ended price deals with contractors and ensure you know what your final price will be before they begin. If they notify you of an additional, unforeseen cost, get a second opinion.
  6. When online shopping, look for suspicious signs like inadequate contact information. Be especially cautious if the contact info is missing entirely.
  7. When discussing alternative deals — a car would be a good example — beware of vague price talk that focuses on monthly payments rather than the bottom line. Otherwise, you can’t make a proper comparison.
  8. If you decide to opt for an alternative, check that it’s returnable or cancellable (when you cool down and realize you’ve been caught by a bait and switch trick).

As always, we advise everyone to be cautious when bargain hunting.

There’s no doubt that these days, especially with Internet shopping, there are some fabulous deals to be had. However, as a rule of thumb, the more attractive the initial price, the more alert you should be to the possibility of a bait and switch.

That’s all for today — we’ll see you next week.