08/18/2010 09:41 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dumb Advice: "Read the Fine Print"

I read all the print and online financial columnists.

Whether the column is about getting a credit card, a car loan, or a mortgage, every single columnist at some point gives the same worthless advice: "Be sure to read the fine print."

This is a dumb suggestion. Unless the reader is a law professor, or has nothing else to do for the rest of his or her life, the fine print will always outwit the reader. In fact, it is supposed to.

By design, "fine print," is not meant to be read. Although the font is rarely smaller these days, the important stuff in all documents is deliberately confusing.

People who craft the "fine print" know what they are doing. They are obfuscators. That is their job. They purposely use long sentences, convoluted phrases and unfamiliar concepts to confuse the reader. It is easy. I could have been a "fine print" master.

The goal is not only to confuse but also to dissuade people from reading. The author of "fine print" figures that 90% of readers will at some point stop reading ridiculous sentences or paragraphs. And, they are right. Most people just give up.

This policy of creating "breakage" - a situation where people give up instead of completing a read, a form, or a complaint - is common in many consumer situations. I have been told, for example, that health insurers make reimbursement forms very hard to understand because they know that some percentage of people will just give up.

So forget about reading the fine print. Here's my advice instead. Find a person at the credit card issuer, the car dealer or the mortgage lender to speak with. Tell him or her you have ten questions you want to ask, and you would like to record his or her answers for "quality assurance."

Then don't quit until you get those answers on tape. By the way, the recorded answers will generally stand up in court.

See tomorrow's post for the ten questions.

Jim Randel is the Founder of The Skinny On™ book series. See