A single dad of a special-needs son and a woodworker by trade, Peterson has been mostly out of work for the past two years. There have been some small jobs, but nothing permanent.
“After many applications for work with no results, I thought that maybe my lack of a high school diploma might be holding me back,” Peterson said.
The Edison man did some online research last summer, looking for information on high school equivalency diplomas. After clicking around, he signed up on several sites to receive more information.
A short time later, Peterson said, he received a call from Ashworth College, an online educator based in Norcross, Ga. That conversation was the seed for future collections calls and confusion about the school’s enrollment procedures and cancellation policies.
Peterson said the call from Ashworth came at an inconvenient time. He was painting a room in his mom’s house, but he listened to the salesman while he continued his work.
“I kept telling him I don’t want to commit. I don’t want to add another bill to the bills I can’t pay already,” Peterson said.
“He pretty much gave me this open door that it would be okay no matter what,” Peterson said.
“They said they’d work with me and do everything to help me.”
Based on that, Peterson agreed to give a $30 down payment via his credit card for a program that would cost $600 in total.
He continued his research about high school equivalency programs and found one through his local community college for only $50. Given the difference in cost, Peterson decided it would be more economical than the online program.
He said he forgot all about Ashworth — until the collections calls started.
In August, Peterson said, he received the first of many calls from Ashworth, which was looking for tuition payments.
Peterson said he told the rep he was no longer interested.
“At first they said, “No problem. Just call if you change your mind,’ ” Peterson said. “But the calls kept coming.”
For a while, he said, he ignored the calls, thinking his account was canceled after his chat with the first collections representative. When a different rep finally reached him, Peterson said he was told it would cost $106 to cancel his account.
“I told them I had never been told of such a fee and refused to pay them,” Peterson said. “Now they want $175.”
He said he called subsequent times to get the fee removed, but got nowhere. He asked Bamboozled for help.
We asked Ashworth how it could hold Peterson accountable if there were no signed contracts, and two representatives from Ashworth called to explain the admissions process.
Ashworth said it doesn’t cold-call, but it follows leads from many sources, including online information requests like Peterson’s. If during a telephone conversation a prospective student gives a down payment for a program, Ashworth considers that a verbal contract, said spokesman Richard Orr.
“After that point we send out an acknowledgement and welcome letter to the student,” Orr said. “The cancellation policy would have been in that packet.”
Ashworth took a look at the school’s records and said Peterson never accessed his online account or returned any paperwork. There was an Aug. 26 call in which Peterson said he was considering canceling, “but there was no indication it was definite,” Orr said.
Orr said Ashworth has a more liberal cancellation policy than other online institutions, and he’s right. Many other schools won’t refund any tuition after a withdrawal deadline has passed.
Ashworth uses a sliding scale, so fees vary depending on when a student wants to pull out. The money owed by Peterson wasn’t a fee to cancel, but was tuition owed based on that sliding scale.
“Based upon the misunderstanding here we would be happy to cancel his enrollment at no fee to him at all,” said Timothy O’Connor, Ashworth’s chief marketing officer. “We won’t charge him a thing.”
O’Connor said Ashworth would also refund the $30 down payment Peterson put on his credit card, but he maintained Peterson didn’t do his part because he didn’t read the enrollment package and follow the cancellation procedures.
We asked Peterson if he ever received an enrollment package. He said he recalls getting a postcard from the college, but didn’t remember getting any other paperwork.
“I don’t remember anything like that,” he said, but he was grateful for the account cancellation. “That’s awesome.”
Many of the complaints received by Bamboozled are valid, from customers getting the shaft from a business. But there are also many problems that come our way because a consumer missed something in the fine print.
To avoid some very avoidable mishaps, keep these tips in mind:
- Get rid of distractions: Whether you’re making a deal in person, on the telephone or online, make sure you’re able to concentrate on the matter at hand. It’s possible Peterson would not have signed up with Ashworth if he hadn’t been in the middle of a paint job. Only make deals when you can offer your full attention.
- Get it in writing: If you’re considering a deal of any kind, get it in writing before you say yes.
- Don’t make any verbal agreements.
- Read the paperwork — all of it: Before you sign a contract, read all the related documentation.
- If there’s something you don’t understand, don’t sign it. Ask a third party to help translate the document until you understand every word. Don’t just take the seller’s word for it.
- Take your time: If you’re not sure about a transaction, wait. Sleep on it or ask trusted friends or family members for advice.
- Understand cancellation policies, return policies and fees: Learn about what you need to do if you change your mind.
Peterson’s credit card has already been refunded the $30. Thanks to Ashworth, a speedy resolution in Peterson’s favor.