What Does “Bait-and-Switch” Mean?

“Bait-and-switch” is an illegal sales method employed by businesses to entice customers to purchase certain products. It’s a form of false advertising and retail fraud that attracts customers to a specific product or store, luring them in with an affordable price or great features. However, once a consumer is interested in purchasing the product or taking advantage of a special offer, it’s suddenly unavailable and they must consider a similar but more expensive product or alternative.

When businesses engage in bait-and-switch sales tactics, customers may feel manipulated or even lied to. They may even have grounds for legal actions due to the false promises made about a product or personal losses incurred due to a bait-and-switch scheme. 

The business that employs this sales method could be breaking consumer law and faces negative consequences for these actions. The business may be legally held accountable and their brand reputation may suffer.

Bait-and-Switch Examples

There are many ways a business uses bait-and-switch sales processes to attract customers and push them to purchase goods or services. In most cases, a business that plans to engage in a bait-and-switch scam begins by luring customers in with an offer that could be too good to be true. 

For example, a company may offer a top-of-the-line blender for only $50. However, the bait-and-switch method comes into play when the business then does one of the following:

  • Suddenly there are no more blenders left: Once the company has received the attention of potential customers who are ready to buy, sales representatives break the news that the blender is no longer available. They offer a different blender model that’s more expensive and doesn’t include as many great features as the blender in the ad.
  • The blender doesn’t appear as advertised: The blender in the advertisement that motivated the customer to engage with the business simply isn’t what’s on the shelf. The actual model may be refurbished or may not include all the features that were claimed in the ad.
  • The blender is more expensive than advertised: In this classic bait-and-switch sales tactic, the customer visits a business after learning about a blender’s extensive features and affordable price. However, the same blender model sits on the shelf for $100 instead of the advertised price of $50. The business banks on the fact that the consumer will buy anyway, even at a higher price, since they already want the product.

What Doesn’t Count as Bait-and-Switch?

While it’s illegal to engage in bait-and-switch sales methods, not all sales strategies are against the law. Some sales processes may seem to engage in bait-and-switch tactics but the way they sell their products or services is perfectly legal. Common examples of sales strategies that seem like bait-and-switch tactics but are legal include the following:

  • Accidental errors in pricing: Businesses may make genuine mistakes in their advertising that allow pricing errors to slip by. A company that honors this pricing error or immediately cancels customer orders shows that this pricing error was accidental and not part of a bait-and-switch scam.
  • Using crafty and alluring language in advertisements: Companies can legally get away with using attractive language in ads, as long as the statements made are true. Advertising a deeply discounted sale or only allowing customers to order online or in-store is manipulative but not illegal.
  • Only offering limited quantities: To increase demand while limiting losses, retailers may limit a sale or product to a certain number of customers. While this is a frustrating sales tactic that may cause you to rush or buy more than you need, it’s not considered bait-and-switch. You can’t seek legal action against a company employing this sales method unless the offer details aren’t disclosed properly. 

It’s important to know the difference between legal and illegal sales methods, similar to learning about the differences between multi-level marketing and illegal pyramid schemes. While these sales tactics are aggressive and may be misleading, they aren’t illegal.

Is Bait-and-Switch Illegal?

Under the Lanham Act of 1946, bait-and-switch advertising is illegal. This law allows consumers to sue for false advertising if they’re the victims of bait-and-switch advertising. Manufacturers may also use this legislation to take action against companies that use their products in bait-and-switch schemes. There are other federal regulations that prohibit companies from falsely advertising products in bait-and-switch campaigns. 

Although this type of advertising is illegal, many businesses still engage in bait-and-switch tactics to increase sales. In some cases, they’re successful at working around these advertising laws to employ legal yet suspicious sales tactics. 

They may claim they’re exercising their right to freedom of speech or that their advertising is truthful. However, some companies blatantly break these laws and attempt to take advantage of consumers through bait-and-switch techniques. It is generally necessary to speak to an attorney to determine if a specific situation crosses the line into an illegal bait-and-switch scam.

Signs of a Bait-and-Switch Scam

To avoid falling victim to a bait-and-switch scam, it’s important to be able to identify these illegal sales tactics. An advertisement may employ bait-and-switch tactics if it:

  • Includes fine print with confusing language or exhaustive terms and conditions.
  • Offers a deal that sounds too good to be true.
  • Provides limited information about the company or retailer.

When you visit a store or attempt to purchase an item but are told it’s suddenly out of stock or the representative pushes hard for an upsell, it may also be bait-and-switch. Remain diligent about the companies you do business with and always read offer details before assuming you can take advantage of a deal.

Tips to Avoid Bait-and-Switch Scams

While identification is key to avoiding a bait-and-switch scam, there are other ways to ensure you don’t become a victim of this illegal sales tactic. Avoid bait-and-switch scams by:

  • Asking for details before providing payment.
  • Reviewing all product choices before making a purchase.
  • Getting the offer in writing.
  • Bringing the ad with you to the retailer.

If you feel you’ve fallen victim to a bait-and-switch scam, get legal help to assist you in dealing with the situation. Pursuing legal action against a company that uses these tactics may be tricky, so legal representation will help ensure you can prove your case.

While bait-and-switch sales tactics are illegal, many companies use this sales method to lure in customers and increase profit. When you understand how these illegal sales processes are employed, you may be able to avoid becoming the victim of a bait-and-switch scam.

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