Bait and Switch Tactics and How to Avoid Them
Have you ever been offered a deal that seemed too good to be true and then discovered that it was, in fact, too good to be true? You may have encountered bait and switch advertising or, at the very least, somewhat shady marketing tactics. If you took the bait, you probably didn’t end up with a hook in your mouth, but you definitely didn’t end up with what you were promised.
Let’s take a look at what bait and switch is, how to tell whether a tactic is bait and switch and how to avoid this scam.
What Does Bait and Switch Mean?
Bait and switch is a fraudulent marketing and sales tactic. It involves offering a prospective customer what seems like a great deal and then, when they take the bait, switching the promised product, service or price out for another.
For a sales tactic to be bait and switch, there must also have been an advertisement that promised you something that the seller never intended to give you. In a true bait and switch scam, the seller never had any intention of selling you the advertised bait.
Some practices that sellers conducting bait and switch scams commonly use include:
- Not stocking all stores with the bait item — in the quantity promised — in the advertisement
- Refusing to take orders for the bait item
- Failing to meet the anticipated demand for the bait and not disclosing its limited availability in the ad
- Showing customers defective or broken products
- Using compensation methods that discourage salespeople from selling the bait
- Refusing to deliver the bait to customers within a reasonable timeframe
- Disparaging the bait or some aspect of it to stop customers from buying it
Bait and switch tactics are frequently used to sell electronic items like TVs, computers, digital cameras and audio equipment. It’s also common in the auto industry. Bait and switch tactics may also be used to sell services, such as internet and TV service.
These are just a few examples of sectors where you might find bait and switch scams — businesses within any industry could use them, though.
Examples of Bait and Switch Tactics
The two main types of bait and switch tactics are:
- Offering one product or service and switching it out for an inferior product
- Offering one price and then switching to another
As an example, let’s say you see an ad for a brand-new smart TV. The TV usually costs $400, but it’s advertised for $100.
Of course, you rush out to the store to take advantage of this fantastic deal only to be confronted by one of these situations:
- The TV is longer available, even though the ad didn’t say anything about limited quantities. The salesperson offers you a smaller smart TV for $200. This new TV has fewer features and worse picture quality than the initially advertised TV. The salesperson then tries to persuade you to buy the inferior, more expensive TV to avoid having made a trip to the store for nothing.
- The TV is available, but it costs $400 — not $100 like the ad promised. The seller may try to justify this by saying that the TV in the store is a slightly different model than the one advertised or that the deal was only available to the first 10 customers even though the ad didn’t specify this.
- The TV is available, but it’s not as described in the advertisement. It may be refurbished, used or damaged. It might be a cheap copy or fake or be stripped down to its bare essentials so that it’s missing components, like cables, remotes and other features.
As another example, let’s say a local internet provider calls you with a great deal on internet service.
You accept, but when you get your first bill, it’s much higher than you expected because the company charged you fees that they didn’t disclose to you. They then say that you need to pay the higher rate if you want to keep the service they initially promised or switch to a lower level of service.
What Is Not Bait and Switch?
Bait and switch is one of those terms that’s frequently misused, and falsely accusing someone of bait and switch can have legal implications. That’s why it’s important to know what bait and switch is not. This understanding will help you identify bait and switch tactics when you encounter them, as well as save yourself from embarrassing situations of misidentifying a bait and switch fraud scheme.
These situations are often confused with bait and switch:
Sometimes, people make mistakes and incorrectly list the price of an item. This move can seem like bait and switch at first, when, in reality, it was a mistake.
For example, you might see a new laptop listed as $9.99 when it was supposed to be $999.
In a store, the item would ring up as $999 at the register. An online store might let you check out for $9.99 but later cancel your order and refund your money. Since the company didn’t intentionally give you the wrong price, it isn’t bait and switch.
A sign this isn’t a scam is that no one tried to pressure you into purchasing the item for its actual price.
Limited Quantities Available
While having limited quantities of an advertised item could be a sign of bait and switch, it could also be part of a legitimate promotion if the advertiser mentioned this limitation in their ads.
For example, an advertiser might say that the offer only applies to the first 50 customers. After that, all other customers pay full price. They might also actually have a limited quantity of the items and specify this in the ad.
These tactics aren’t bait and switch if the advertiser disclosed the limitations.
Sometimes, the wording in ads can be confusing to customers and make them think they’ve run into a bait and switch scam. This wording may be purposely tricky and disclose the limitations of ads in a not-so-obvious way.
For example, you may have seen ads that use the phrase “up to.”
An ad might say that washing machines are up to 75 percent off. Some customers might assume that all the store’s washing machines come highly discounted. In reality, only one washing machine needs to be 75 percent off to make the advertisement’s claim true. That one machine could even be old or damaged.
Other examples of crafty language include “offer not valid in all stores” and “individual store prices may vary.”
While these tactics might not be very nice, they’re not bait and switch technically.
Bait and Switch Tactics and the Law
Bait and switch is illegal and is punishable as a false advertisement under the Lanham Act.
Under the law, businesses can’t propose selling an item at a certain price or quality if it doesn’t actually intend to do so.
The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, is responsible for monitoring advertisements and enforces laws regarding false advertising.
There are still lots of bait and switch scams out there though, so it’s essential to be careful and to know how to spot them.
Warning Signs of a Potential Bait and Switch
How can you tell when something might be a bait and switch scam? Watch out for these warning signs:
- If a company offers you a product or service at a highly discounted price with no strings attached. Typically, businesses don’t just give things away for next to nothing. They usually have a plan to make the initial loss worth it, or there’s some reason they have to sell stuff for cheap. For example, they might give you a gift if you sign up for their mailing list or make a $100 purchase. They might also have a big sale because they’re going out of business. If you can’t find any reason for the discounted price, be careful.
- If a seller starts asking about payment details too early. An online seller, for example, might ask you to input your payment information before you get all the information on a product or deal. This request is a bad sign.
- If a seller starts making excuses about why an advertised product is out of stock or more expensive than promised. When a seller makes moves like these, they may not be genuine about what they’re selling you.
- If a seller claims that an advertised product is just one element of a larger product or service. These kinds of sellers will also insist that you must buy the whole package to get the advertised deal. You know, however, that you’ve probably found a bait and switch scheme.
- If you’re having trouble getting information from the seller. An honest vendor should have no problem answering your questions and giving you the information you request about a product or promotion. If the seller is avoiding or ignoring questions or doesn’t seem to be giving complete, honest answers, this can be a sign that they aren’t genuine.
How to Avoid a Bait and Switch
How can you make sure you don’t end up the victim of a bait and switch scheme?
Try these three tips whenever you’re taking a company up on a deal they’re offering.
1. Ask for Details
Before you buy something, ask questions. Make sure you get the details you need to ensure you know what you’re getting.
If the seller doesn’t answer your questions, they may not be genuine. Getting them to give you the details of the promotion also makes it harder for them to change things later and still claim the deal is legitimate.
Ask about promotion and purchase details such as:
- Rules and Exceptions: Some promotions come with a lot of complicated rules and exceptions. Ask if you need to agree to any additional terms to get the advertised price or if any fine print might prevent you from getting the advertised rate.
- The Total Price: Sometimes, sellers will tack on added fees to an advertised price. Ask if there are any extra fees and get them to give you a total price.
- The Length of the Promotion: If the promotion is for a service, ask how long it is for and what the price will be after the promotion expires. Sometimes, providers might give you a low promotional rate to get you to sign up, but that price expires after a short time.
- Early Cancellation Charges: If paying for a service, ask if there are any charges for early cancellation. Some companies may charge this fee even if you don’t sign a contract.
2. Get the Offer in Writing
An honest company will be willing to put the terms of their deal in writing. If they refuse to, this can be a sign of a bait and switch.
Get the terms of the promotion as well as the answer to any questions you ask in writing if possible. Make sure you read everything they give you, including the fine print. Although this can be tedious, it’ll help ensure you know exactly what you’re getting.
This tactic for avoiding bait and switch fraud also makes it much harder for the company to go back on their word and can serve as evidence that they weren’t honest.
3. Take Notes
When you talk to employees and ask questions, take notes.
Write down what the company tells you, as well as the date and time of your conversation. Also, ask for the names and employee identification numbers of the employees you speak to about a promotion. Having this information written down creates some accountability and helps you get the business to honor their word.
What to Do If You Discover Bait and Switch Fraud
If you uncover a bait and switch scam or become the victim of one, there are steps you can take to get your money back or help others avoid falling into the trap. Of course, before you take any action, make sure the scheme is a bait and switch scam. Before taking any legal action, you should always consult with a lawyer.
If you discover a bait and switch scheme and manage to walk away before taking the bait, there are some things you can do to help others avoid falling for it. One thing you can do is submit a complaint to the FTC.
If you know anyone who was thinking about taking advantage of the deal, let them know about your experience. Also, consider writing a review or post on social media about your experience.
If you fall victim to bait and switch trickery, you may be able to take legal action against the company by suing for damages resulting from the fraudulent claim. Competing businesses and companies whose products got used as bait may also be able to take legal action.
Be aware that winning a bait and switch case can be challenging. It is difficult to prove that the seller never intended to sell you the bait, and the accused company can often claim there was some limitation to their promotion. Again, always consult with a lawyer before taking any legal action.
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