Why I hate consumer contracts

A problematic prepay

I was going over my old files the other day and found a bill for “Sunrocket,” a long-defunct Internet phone company that charged me $244 for a year's worth of service and proceeded to close shop a couple of weeks later. They just disconnected service and stopped answering the phones. No message, no warning, nothing. I was literally robbed, but luckily I had paid with a bank card, so I initiated a dispute and my bank account was refunded some months later.

Done in by the Internet

A year after the Sunrocket debacle I moved towns and got a contract for DSL with the now-extinct ISP known as Qwest. I needed reliable service, so I purchased a business-class connection that cost over $100 per month with a two-year contract. The connection was bad, nevertheless, and every month or so a technician had to come over and fix something, or I needed a modem replaced. I had to spend hours every week with the outsourced tech support staff who would regurgitate me scripts over a noisy phone line. It was horrible, but I had a contract, and I endured.

Halfway through that contract the beleaguered economy of 2009 forced me to move house. Qwest could reconnect me at the new location, but I needed to spend the summer in a cabin with no electricity, so I couldn't provide an immediate address to move the service. I asked to put the service temporarily on hold, but Qwest refused. I asked why not, they said they did that for residential customers but not for businesses, and I had business service. Ayayay! I decided to end the dysfunctional relationship and cancel my contract on the spot, and I was hit with a $500 bill for my decision. It hurt, but it was better than paying $300 for non-service during the summer and then having to endure one more year of torment at their hands.

Locked in a cell

Earlier this year my wife lost her cell phone at a party. It was an awesome shindig up to that point, but having to call customer service in the wee hours of the night when you think your phone was stolen is no fun. The next day she went to the Verizon store to see how to replace the missing gadget. The only option was to use the “insurance,” which would provide her with the same old device for about $100. [Disclaimer: I have nothing to do with this phone or insurance plan or any of that, and I'm not defending it, I'm just telling you what happened.]

Her phone was due for an upgrade in a couple of months, so it seemed dumb to pay $100 to have the same old thing sent to her, but the company couldn't give her an upgrade just yet, not even if she paid for it. I suggested she temporarily suspend the service, but the store said they'd charge her something like $100 per month for non-use of the phone. (!!). This was for a phone that was presumably “free” as a part of a family plan. Go figure.

Lucky for us, we returned to the party house for a search-and-rescue expedition, and with the help of daylight and some needed serenity I found the phone buried somewhere in the kitchen. Oh, sweet relief! We had dodged a bullet (no need to bite this time), but I learned about the Kafkaesque absurdities of cell phone contracts. As a result when I finally broke down and decided to get with the times, I purchased a non-contract phone even if the initial payment was higher.

Caution about contracts

I understand that contracts are part of the basis of civilization and are what allows our economy to function. They are also an important business tool. However, customer contracts are a matter of course in some industries, but they tend to be bad for several reasons.

First, as consumers, our only power is that of choice–we vote with our dollars. When we lock our money for the long term, we surrender our power as consumers. “I hate your sucky customer service,” you say, and they hit you with a bill for the privilege of escaping their bad service.

Second, the law is meant to protect everyone equally, but it's hard to enter a contract with a large corporation as an equal. Unless you're part of a class-action lawsuit, you lack the firepower to beat a large company in court. There is, of course, the option to use the mosquito strategy and fight them in small claims court. But who has the time for court disputes? Don't you have work to do?

Third–and this is straight personal finance–contracts turn your wants into needs. If you follow the Balanced Money Formula (I do), you should have at most half of your budget committed to expenditures while you split the rest between enjoyable wants and prudent savings. When you turn HBO from an optional pleasure into a financial obligation, you're shooting yourself in the foot.

Fourth, and related to the previous point, nobody knows the future and it's good to stay flexible in the face of change. What do you do when your cable company drops your favorite channel? What if your cell phone provider starts to give you headaches? Tracking a few solid commitments and tracking fewer things owed to us is less headache-inducing than tracking myriad junk promises. I know and like my car insurance company–enough that I am willing to “marry” them with a single payment six months at a time; it just makes my life easier. Otherwise, I don't care who you are or what discounts you offer, I'll take a month at a time, please, and we'll see where this relationship takes us.

Readers, do you have any consumer contracts right now? Are they a trap you can't escape or have they served you well? Do you have any good experiences or horror stories with them?

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William @ Drop Dead Money
William @ Drop Dead Money

Oh man, I hear you! What makes it worse is the number of providers are shrinking. Competition used to be our only protection (choice as you said) but the government (no matter which party’s in charge) has been allowing the providers to merge to the point where effective competition is dying out. We’re happy with Dish and, because I love watching football, I can’t see myself “cutting the cord” anytime soon, so we stay married to them. For some reason Verizon has worked out well for us (touch wood) but even so, when the contract runs out, we’ll probably find… Read more »

Rya @ bulgarian money blog
Rya @ bulgarian money blog

Oh, yes. Once you sign with a company there’s practically no way out. At least no cheap way out. I’d say, before you sign a contract, try their service for a couple of months if possible without signing. You may not have this option everywhere or with every company I suppose, but ask for it. (Many companies have a policy not to inform you about monthly or no-contract prepaid service unless you specifically ask for it.) Usually, the longer contract you sign, the better fee you get. But I personally would always go with the shortest kind of contract –… Read more »

SLCCOM
SLCCOM

Actually, no you haven’t. You signed a contract with the previous provider, not this one.

LeRainDrop
LeRainDrop

Yes, but the new provider acquired the existing contracts. I would bet there’s a clause in there that the provider can assign the contract.

thethriftyspendthrift
thethriftyspendthrift

I haven’t really had an issue with contracts before because I have never attempted to get out of one. Most people sign contracts because it’s cheaper—your phone is cheaper, your overall service is cheaper, etc. Depending on the company, some are more reasonable than others and may actually try to work with you.

My MIL actually had some deal where if she switched cable companies the cable company she was switching to would pay her cancellation fee. I guess that’s an angle you might be willing to try depending on where you are.

Rosa
Rosa

at least with cell phones, you have to have really solid evidence of how much you’re going to use the phone in its various forms AND some idea of what the market is going to look like for the next two years or so, to make a good decision.

It’s totally random if you make the cheaper choice, because nobody really has that information. At this point because of family and work changes, we’d be better off without a cell phone contract – but we have a year to go before we can switch without paying a big fee.

AMW
AMW

Our verizon contract has been good for us…we get a discount through my husband’s employer(fortune 100 company)plus customer service has always addressed any problem we had and fixed it immediately. Time Warner on the other hand…does not fare as well! We have the bundle for internet, phone, and basic cable. Our internet is frequently interrupted and their customer service blows!!! They don’t seem to understand that not everyone who calls with a technical question is computer literate (duh! that’s why I am calling you!) and many times have had them say “Sorry, if it isn’t working must not be our… Read more »

Rya @ bulgarian money blog
Rya @ bulgarian money blog

@AMW – booooy do I know what you mean.

getagrip
getagrip

Take them to court? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

You may want to look at the fine print in your contract or customer agreement. Almost every credit card, cable, phone, or other service provider with a customer contract now forces you to arbitration and removes your ability to take them to court if you “choose” to use their service.

Who pays the arbitrator?

Who does the arbitrator side with in something like 90+% of disputes?

The corporatation as people entities are taking your rights from you in the name of efficiency and pretend choice.

Rya @ bulgarian money blog
Rya @ bulgarian money blog

I’m not sure a service contract can “remove your ability to take them to court” – how is that even legal? I suppose it’s just a blank bullet designed to manipulate you into thinking you can’t sue so you don’t even try.

Consulting a lawyer will clear this up, but I am really doubtful a person can “waive” their rights.

William
William

Rya: Here’s an article on Binding Mandatory Arbitration:
http://centerjd.org/content/fact-sheet-mandatory-binding-arbitration-corporate-end-run-around-civil-justice-system

And yes, this is in most consumer contracts. And yes, it is legal.

Rya
Rya

Wow. And there’s no workaround? Wow.

Here in Bulgaria there is no such thing allowed (yet). Also we have a law that forbids automatic contract renewal.

imelda
imelda

I have nothing whatsoever to back up this claim, *but* I’m pretty confident that those disclaimers don’t hold up in court.

Maybe it’s different for things like cell phones and utilities. But those online mass “I accept” agreements? I don’t think they’re very binding, and I think you can still sue them.

SLCCOM
SLCCOM

The challenge is finding a lawyer to take you case, and having it be worth your costs.

elena
elena

Good points, love your POV, El Nerdo.
We do well by AT&T Uverse with cable/phone/internet package. Some occasional drops in service, but overall no serious problems. We want smartphones, but the cost of contracts, service is more than we want to pay verus what we actually need. We still use tracphones. For now.
Other monthly contracts /subscriptions include: weight watchers, emusic,local gym, npr, NYT digital, charitable donations.

William
William

This is right in my ally. Just this month, I am taking the slow road to move from iPhone service (3gs, more than 2 years old and off contract) to a TracFone, a pre-paid mobile phone.

It is smaller and lighter in my pocket, and I can still get the most important feature — how long until my bus shows up.

Perhaps most importantly, as it turns the cell phone from an automatic payment to requiring an action to buy more minutes, it turns it from a need back into a want.

LauraElle
LauraElle

“Perhaps most importantly, as it turns the cell phone from an automatic payment to requiring an action to buy more minutes, it turns it from a need back into a want.”

Yes! That’s exactly it!!

TB at BlueCollarWorkman
TB at BlueCollarWorkman

My wife and I have as few contracts as possible for this very reason. You’re screwed.If you have any problems, they have you screwed and all you can do is nod and go, “Yep, I’m screwed.” THe only saving grace I’ve found to help with companies that try to screw me and I’m in a contract is the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Companies do NOT want to mess with the BBB. Can you believe that I had a problem with the King of poor customer service, Comcast, and I contacted the BBB and everything was resolved in 2 days. TWO… Read more »

thatguy
thatguy

except the BBB is a shakedown scam in itself. some franchises are better than others. just remember, it’s not a government organization. they are separately franchised corporations that fund themselves by charging businesses membership fees. businesses that are members can get favorable treatment.

Old Guy
Old Guy

Another venue that has gotten immediate attention when you have problems with a company is Facebook. I have two friends who complained on the company’s Facebook page (nt their personal page) and the problem was addressed within the hour for both of them. I know that not every company has a Facebook page, but since the Better Business Bureau was mentioned as a source, I thought I would mention it.

Sheryl
Sheryl

As a consumer, I’m wary of contracts because I know how easily my circumstances can change in a way that may make me have to break them. I need to have a lot of confidence that circumstances won’t change to be willing to go on contract for a service. From another perspective, I’ve worked for a company that provides services on a contract, and I can’t tell you how many times I used to spell out the exact terms of a contract to a customer who was clearly ignoring me before agreeing to it. So, you know, even if the… Read more »

Holly@ClubThrifty

We had a two year gym membership and failed to read the small print in the contract. Unfortunately, we ignorantly thought that we could cancel once the two year contract was up. Instead, we didn’t cancel in writing and it automatically renewed for another year!

It was our fault for not reading the fine print but it still doesn’t seem reasonable that it should be able to automatically renew for an entire year.

Anyway, we cancelled in writing and it will expire this upcoming January. Lesson learned.

Robin
Robin

Gym contracts are the worst! I signed up for a year of Muay Thai kickboxing at the local school (not a corporation mind you) and enjoyed 8 months of kickboxing before I got hurt at work and ended up with serious medical issues. Since my job is in law enforcement and it comes with the territory I specifically asked about injuries and being able to put the account on hold. The nice man at the desk said “sure no problems, no extra charges.” While recovering from my injury I got a $600 bill for breaking contract (which I didn’t even… Read more »

Grayson @ Debt RoundUp
Grayson @ Debt RoundUp

Oh, I feel you on this topic. I am currently working on pulling the plug on Verizon for a no-contract phone plan. I also already pulled the cable contract and am flying free over the air. Verizon used to be a good company, but I feel that they have fallen over a cliff. Their service is bad, their prices are rising, and you have no options when in their contract. They control you. My contract is up with them in two months. I will be moving my number and purchasing a phone outright. Though it is more expensive up front,… Read more »

Davey@PiggyBankBuilder.com

If you have an Iphone, Applecare is a nice alternative to phone insurance. Certainly worth looking into.

Kay
Kay

Haven’t had a ton of problems with cell phone contracts – though I hate the argument that they’re giving you a “discounted” phone by using a contract… it’s not like your monthly bill decreases when the phone subsidy has ended and you’re off contract again! They also won’t do repairs on your phone anymore either – I dropped my 2 year old smartphone the other day and the screen shattered… and was turned away by Sprint. The replacement parts are easily available online for ~$20 and I’d even be willing to pay an additional $20 for the 15 minutes of… Read more »

SavvyFinancialLatina
SavvyFinancialLatina

I was really, really ignorant and signed up with Protect America for a house security contract. They lie, and now I’m stuck with them. Over the phone they told me it was only a 2 year contract but when I signed the contract they changed it to three years. I have learned from my experience, and try to go for subscription models like Netflix or hulu. Or with well know companies.

LauraElle
LauraElle

Our only contract (aside from our mortgage) is our cell phone contract. And we’re going down to prepaid cell phones when the contract expires in April. We’re doing this to save money. Our cell phone provider has been decent but going prepaid will save us hundreds of dollars a year.

Everything else is month to month: the gym, internet, Netflix, ect.

Kathryn
Kathryn

My son recently lost his iPhone (he is a college student) and we went to Verizon to look at getting a replacement. We could either get a new phone for $200 if we re-upped our contract for another two years or pay $600 for a non-contract phone. I looked around at another options and started shopping for an unlocked Verizon phone online and found a $140 Droid Incredible Verizon phone brand new in the box on Amazon (The same phone was around $500 through Verizon by the way). It’s not as cool, but it works and we didn’t have to… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda

We recently cancelled our DirecTV. What a headache! We were not in a contract and it had been 7 months since the last one ended, yet they still attempted to charged us nearly $300 for an early cancellation fee. Many phone calls and demands to speak to supervisors finally got this cleared up. We then had a credit on our account for the pre-paid month of service which was unused. It took them 2 months to send a refund check. When I received the check, it was for significantly less than our credit balance. More phone calls revealed that their… Read more »

Sandra
Sandra

My daughter recently wanted to try Taekwando, but the one thing I did NOT want to do was sign a contract. I wouldn’t have minded a session fee like I pay for her gymnastics, but the Taekwando places want you to sign a 12 month (or more) contract (the month-to-month rate is significantly more $$$).

bryan
bryan

it’s a hard balance. For example car insurance agencies make lucrative offers for 6 month payments. For time value of money is more important that.

Marsha
Marsha

I’m not sure that it’s true of all insurance companies or just the ones I’ve dealt with, but I’ve been able to change insurers during a policy period with no cancellation fee. They’ve just prorated the amount of insurance I used by the cancellation date, and I got a refund for the remainder of the policy period.

Sabrae
Sabrae

Car insurance isn’t a very good example for the very reason you mention. Paying for the full six months (or year) doesn’t mean that you’re locked into a contract for that period of time. You can cancel at any time and will receive back a pro-rated amount of the premium paid. You may also receive back a pro-rated amount of the fees you paid for the current term as well (i.e. SR-22 fees or if your company has a policy fee every time you renew). Although insurance does vary from state to state, I’m pretty sure this is standard across… Read more »

WWII Kid
WWII Kid

The only contract I ever had trouble with was many years ago for a beeper. A friend got me a bargain on a national company through an agent in Chinatown and I felt sooooo cool. It was a terrific number, too. All the same numerals. Anyway, by paying a year in advance I’d save more, so of course I did it. Beeper companies would never vanish, right? We were all going to be wearing them forever. Then one day out of the blue service stopped. And if magazine subscriptions count as consumer contracts (yes, some of us still read paper… Read more »

cc
cc

in recent ironic news, the smartmoney magazine went out of business. just got the last issue a few months ago.

glad i didn’t listen to too many of their articles? …

Carla
Carla

I’m very fortunate I never had an issue with a contracts. I’ve always been skeptical with prepaid phone service due to poor customer service and coverage reviews so I’ve always stuck with Verizon, though they have their issues at times as all companies do. I’m sure the other companies will step up their game since more and more people are making the switch to prepaid. I do fear the whole “you drop it, your loss” policies. I use silicon covers for my phone which absorbs impact a great deal, but you can only drop it so many times before its… Read more »

Steve
Steve

I hear that it’s a relatively unique thing to the US market. That in Europe, Asia, etc they pay up front for a cell phone and then pay-as-they-go month to month. But here in the US, we have somehow become so focused on the number in front of us when making the decision, and tend to forget about or ignore the long term costs. So we end up with subsidized cell phones with two year contracts; and “low” airfares with taxes, security fees, baggage fees, drink fees, etc. And similar for many products.

Kate
Kate

As a person from the UK I don’t think that’s quite right – teenagers and other people with no credit ratings have PAYG (pay as you go) phones. But most adults have contracts – it is MUCH cheaper if you make quite a lot of calls. As phone handsets have got more sophisticated (and thus relatively expensive compared to the phone calls) contracts have got longer. The typical term to get a smart phone free upfront is 2 years of about £25-40/month. If your phone is broken/lost/stolen then without insurance you’re locked into the term of your contract. As a… Read more »

Janice
Janice

Interesting points. In law, there is contract law, and then there’s consumer law, and somehow consumer agreements have ended up under the pervue of contract law instead of where they belong, as consumer law. Consumers have rights, contract signers by virtue of the contracts they sign, may lose theirs. Point being, when you buy a house, for instance, or enter into a legal relationship with another party, most people will have a lawyer take a look at the contract. Not so with cell phone contracts, etc., right? Who takes those to a lawyer. So the diminishing number of companies with… Read more »

KSR
KSR

It’s like needles piercing my eyes! I exited contract law years ago when it was apparent that there wasn’t enough ammo in the world to blow my own brains out. With the institution of mandatory arbitration, embedded within most contracts, no one stands a chance. Especially with the Supreme Court affirming, in a 5-4 decision–it can keep consumers stuck in the mud of arbitration with no real ability to sue. I don’t hold any consumer contractual agreements/contracts that I can’t easily get out of with one phone call. I never will.

Matt
Matt

Eh. I’ve ways used Legal Shield for such matters. Having a law firm at your disposal really helps to create leverage in all these mentioned situations.

eec
eec

Years ago, we signed up for a home security system. Same price for 5 years. We assumed we would live there at least that long. We were wrong. After two years we needed to move and could not take the system with us (moving into apt and system was hard-wired to the house- holes, etc). Canceling didnt help bc we would have to pay out the contract. Also, earlier this year I noticed that the price per month increased. So basically I paid $36 a month for an alarm that was not being monitored bc there was no phone line… Read more »

Kristen
Kristen

A few years back, I lost my cell phone at a company party with many hundreds of people. I was still under contract and ineligible to upgrade, and did not have insurance on the phone. To replace my phone at that point, six months from being eligible to upgrade, would have been $500-600. Luckily, my sister had an extra phone from the same service provider I was able to activate on my account for a nominal fee. I now have insurance on my phone, but I always keep the last model, working phone at home just in case…

Sandi_k
Sandi_k

Contracts and cancellation are even more pernicious than cancellation fees. They’re now blackballing ex-subscribers, thus lowering your choices in the future.

My widowed mother had been a DirecTV customer for more than a decade. She recently chose to bundle her home phone/cable/cell phone with Verizon.

DirecTV told her if she canceled with them, she could NEVER re-subscribe. And she wasn’t under contract. Unbelievable tactics.

We were considering moving to DirecTV, since DISH lost AMC (and Walking Dead!). With that customer service, it’s now unlikely!

Marsha
Marsha

I’d be surprised if there’s a blackballing system set up. That would be an absolutely moronic way of doing business. I bet the customer retention person was just trying to scare your mom into keeping the service.

BC
BC

The cell phone service contract scheme is such a racket! My battery died on my ancient not-smart cell phone about a year ago. When I went to my provider’s store to look for a replacement I felt woozy from the rampant rip-offs that were underway with their new phone “discounts” and “give-aways” while customers were signing up for contracts that made the company a bundle. I am on a monthly contract with my provider (the way that it should be) and didn’t want to give that up so I bought a simple $70 phone outright and put my sim card… Read more »

csdx
csdx

“Unless you’re part of a class-action lawsuit,”
You mean the thing that you gave up as a right when entering the contract?

Riki
Riki

I agree – I absolutely hate, with the fiery heat of a thousand suns, cell phone or other contracts. I strive to minimize my monthly bill requirements in general (no cable, etc) but I absolutely refuse to sign a contract for cell service. In Canada, we have Koodo Mobile and the operate differently than other cell service providers. The service is bare-bones and you pay for things like paper bills, but their prices are fairly competitive and there are no contracts. If I finally decide to take the iPhone plunge, I will pay for one out of pocket rather than… Read more »

SwampWoman
SwampWoman

We went ahead and cancelled DirectTV which was our last contract. We have the prepaid phone service which works for us. Some months we might use $30 worth of phone service when one of us is across the country for a week. Some months we use $0. It averages out to about $10 a month over the course of a year for our cell phones.

Eric
Eric

Not that it’s relevant to the story but SunRocket is actually back in business. A private equity firm purchased the domain and related trademarks earlier this year. Anyway, I cancelled my satallite TV service years ago. Found a FREE TV antenna on CL. They didn’t even know what it was! Works great. We also started playing all the old board games and found it a lot more fun then TV.

Peach
Peach

At the end of my TMobile contract, I changed to TMobile prepaid. My bill immediately dropped $30. When my phone died, I bought an inexpensive flip phone and have never looked back. It has an ok camera. It works with my Bluetooth earpiece. It isn’t a music phone, but I have a MP3. The network is the same network I had at a higher price for years. The big difference is I continue to save every month, and I’m free to change to any other prepaid service I want. I avoid contracts whenever possible. I know who they benefit, and… Read more »

Stacy
Stacy

Ok, every time I have priced out prepaid cell phones, our Verizon contract comes out cheaper. Hubby and I are both heavy cell phone users (no landline) and I send lots of text messages for work. Every time I have looked at how many minutes I use with Verizon and compared it to the prepaid rates, the contract is always cheaper. It may be because we have a grandfathered in non-smartphone rate. Other than that, our only other contract is for weed service. We’ve been with them for years and never had an issue. We have never had trouble changing… Read more »

Marie
Marie

Check out StraightTalk phones and prepaid cards: $30 for 1000 minutes, 1000 texts, and 30mb of data for regular phones or $45 for unlimited minutes, texts, and data for Android smartphones. You buy the phones from their selection (prices from $20 for a regular phone to $180ish for their best Android smartphone) We switched from Verizon to StraightTalk earlier this year because we realized we’d save literally $55 per month for two smartphones compared to our Verizon bill. We went from $145/month to $90. If you have a GSM based phone already, you can buy a cheap StraightTalk sim card… Read more »

Pat Jones
Pat Jones

The $30 plan now includes 1,500 minutes and unlimited text and 100 MB of data.

Lots of minutes. Other plans that I have seen for $30 or less only offer 100 or 300 minutes.

Bartholomew J. Worthington III
Bartholomew J. Worthington III

This is my first comment on the GRS site, but this article resonated with me so much I had to respond.

I just recently returned to pre paid cell phone service after enduring 2 years under T-Mobile’s oppressive thumb. The irony is that I had been with the same carrier for 6 years PRIOR to moving to T Mobile.

The moral of the story: Love the one you’re with.

Jacqueline Ross
Jacqueline Ross

Although tedious, it makes sense to actually work out the ‘savings’ you are supposed to be getting from the contract. Sometimes the ‘free phone’ offered with the contract can be purchased new from a reputable seller on ebay for a fraction of the retail cost listed as the contract savings. Same with most of the accessories. Also, you end up paying tax on the list price of the device – not the sales price – which can be a MUCH bigger out-of-pocket than expected. Factor in the insurance, deductibles, contract fees, termination penalties, change penalties, etc. and it might make… Read more »

Marc
Marc

A few years ago, my ATT cell phone died before the “warranty period” was up, but still refused to replace it for free because they claimed the warranty didn’t cover cracked screens. After talking to an ATT Store and two on line reps, one for residential and one for business accounts, I was led to believe that the only way I could get a new phone was through an upgrade and extending my contract. It was only through a RadioShack store that sold ATT that I discovered that I could supply my own phone and it could be entered as… Read more »

Matt
Matt

I’ve had charter since 2003 and AT&T/cellone since 2002. Contract or not didn’t matter…until Charter said “People hate contracts, so we are getting rid of them”

Suddenly my bill went up from $35 to $58 a month. I begged them to put me on a contract, but they said they no longer had them.

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