Beware of contracts that take away your rights

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- You may never have noticed it, but it’s included in the fine print of nearly every contract you sign before buying a car, a cell phone or even a house. It's called a binding arbitration clause and even if  you read it, you might not understand it.

Consumer experts say it allows companies to rip people off without having to worry about the consequences.

In a nutshell, a binding arbitration clause prevents you from ever suing the company you are buying something from, no matter how bad the product is or how poorly you were treated.

“It pains me to see consumers robbed of their rights like this and it's a silent robbery,” consumer attorney Dale Irwin said.

Irwin said the only people an arbitration clause benefits are the companies selling the product.

“It takes away your right to have a jury in front of your peers,” Irwin said.

Instead, you have to meet with an arbitrator that is usually selected by the company that sold you the bad product.

“That one person can say yes or no, doesn't have to explain the decision. There's no appeal from it,” Irwin said.

A few years ago the Minnesota Attorney General’s office shut down an arbitration firm that ruled in favor of companies and against customers 98 percent of the time. However, companies argue that arbitration clauses are a good thing because they save on legal battles, and companies can pass that savings onto consumers.

But attorneys like Irwin wonder why, if arbitration is such a good thing, car dealers, who wouldn't think of selling a car to a customer without an arbitration clause, lobbied congress to prevent auto manufacturers from making them sign an arbitration clause.

“These mean old powerful manufactures are depriving us of our rights to take them to court by putting in these arbitration clauses in our franchise agreements,” Irwin said.

So remember next time you click the box or sign your name on that contract, you might want to pay attention to what it says. There is legislation pending in Congress to try and address the problems caused by the increase in binding arbitration contracts. It's called the ‘Arbitration Fairness Act.’ If you'd like to see it passed, you need to contact your member of Congress and let them know.

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