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In ads, be sure to read the fine print

Melinda Thompson liked the Tom & Jerry-themed checks advertised on a coupon insert in her Sunday paper, so she ordered four boxes, expecting to pay about $16.

But she missed small type advising her that the advertised price is for new customers only.

For her: $69.22.

"Imagine my dismay when I received an email stating my order has been placed and is on its way, and my total is $69.22," she wrote.

Thinking it was a mistake, she called the company's toll-free number and the friendly rep told her that it was not a mistake; the low introductory rate was for new customers only.

"She stated that in 2007 I had ordered from them," Thompson said. "I can't remember what I did even a week ago, let alone five years ago, and as such, I was charged the reorder rate, four boxes of checks for $69.22."

When Thompson tried to cancel the order, she was told it was too late because the checks had already been printed. So she vowed that as soon as the checks arrived, she'd mail them back, unopened and unused, for a full refund "as no normal, sane person is paying $69 for checks!'

That's when she came to me for advice. "Please tell me I don't have to pay $69 for checks!"

I could tell her that, but it wouldn't be true, I said. "I fear you are at the mercy of the company."

The insert states in four separate places that the prices quoted are for first-time customers only. Each is in small type and easy to overlook, but they are there. What you won't find, however, is anything that gives any indication what the price would be for a returning customer, adding to the confusion.

Thompson's plight is not so different from what many consumers face every day: terms and conditions presented in a way that only lawyers and consumers with magnifying glasses know the true cost.

Whether the pitch comes in a circular, newspaper insert or online ad, a consumer often has to follow the asterisk trail or search the fine print to know if the deal is really as good as it first seems.

We see that often in retail ads. "Everything on sale" the large type proclaims, but tiny type lists all sorts of exclusions. Or auto ads that quote a great price in large type, but small print says it applies only to recent college graduates.

And until January, when new U.S. Department of Transportation rules took effect, requiring airlines to include taxes and to display add-on fees for such things as checked bags, extra legroom and seat assignments, passengers had to search through the small print to figure out the real cost.

Thompson's problem went beyond small print. She ordered her checks by mail, and didn't discover the higher price until the order had been processed. Had she made the purchase online or by phone, she would have been told what the price would be, giving her the opportunity to cancel.

Even though she would have to pay four times the quoted price, once the order went through, the onus was on her to get it reduced.

This is not to be confused with your rights when you are sent merchandise that you did not order -- including those address labels and calendars that are so popular with nonprofits. With them, you have no obligation to pay for it or even to return it. But that is not the case here; Thompson placed the order.

Fortunately for Thompson, the company relented after she sent the checks back unopened "along with a scathing -- though still polite -- letter." She didn't hear back from the company, but a week later, the $16.50 had been credited to her bank account.

"Next time, I'll know better," she said.