Online subscriptions of all kinds have mushroomed in recent years. While registration is easy, managing and cutting them is difficult, even for savvy consumers.
Clark Howard, a longtime cost-cutting guru from Atlanta, recently realized he was paying for streaming service even though his household was getting the service for free from the home’s Internet provider, he said.
He sent a group text – “Who signed up for this?” — and found out that one of his children had. He could cancel the extra subscription online, he said. But the experience illustrates how complex it has become to track the many services that consumers can get with a few clicks, automatically charged to a credit card.
“There can be so many different types of things,” Mr Howard said. Video entertainment and online games, computer software, meal prep kits, weight loss programs, and clothing are just a few of the items available through subscription. People can lose track, he said, of everything they’re paying for.
Government watchdogs, however, are increasingly scrutinizing how companies deal with customers trying to terminate subscriptions. Last month, the Federal Trade Commission sued Amazonarguing that the large online retailer tricked people into signing up for its Prime program, which includes benefits such as fast delivery and streaming, and made it difficult for them to cancel.
“The primary goal of its Prime cancellation process was not to enable subscribers to cancel, but to stop them,” the agency said in a statement. news.
Amazon said in an emailed statement that the FTC’s claims are “false on the facts and the law,” adding that “by design we make it clear and simple for customers to either sign up for or cancel their Prime membership.”
The FTC also offers rules that would require companies to make it “at least as easy” to cancel a subscription as it was to start it. If, for example, you can register online, you must be able to cancel on the same website, in the same number of steps.
The new rules, which are being finalized, will go into effect next spring or summer, said James A. Kohm, associate director of the enforcement division at the FTC’s consumer protection office. “Help is on the way,” Mr. Kohm said.
Many people and groups have filed online comments about the proposed rules. A man in Eugene, Ore., wrote that in order to cancel TextNow, an app that offers messaging and calling services, he finally had to persuade his credit union to stop monthly withdrawals from his account. And a subscriber to MyHeritage, a family genealogy website, said he “tried in vain” to stop the company from automatically billing his credit card. TextNow and MyHeritage did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It is about the use of “negative option” plans, which assume that consumers accept an offer unless they affirmatively reject it – such as a free trial that continues as a paying subscription.
Companies prefer auto-renewing subscriptions because they don’t have to keep aggressively marketing their product, said John Breyault, vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud with the National Consumers League.
Some people, of course, like free trials and automatic renewals. Even the FTC, in its proposal, conceded that such options could have “substantial benefits” for consumers. But increasingly, the FTC said, companies are using “dark patterns” that can make it harder to stop service. Such tools may include requiring customers to click through multiple screens or making the online “cancel” button dim but use a light color to “continue.”
C+R Research found in May 2022 an inquiry that on average, consumers initially estimated they spent $86 per month on subscription services. But after examining their expenses in more detail, they saw that they actually spent $219.
Mr. Howard encouraged consumers to research new services and their cancellation policies before signing up outside of the service’s website and by looking in general for its cancellation policy and any complaints.
“You have to look at how you divorce before you get married,” he said.
The FTC advises consumers to set a calendar reminder on their phones when they sign up for a free trial so they are alerted when it’s time to cancel. Not everyone will do that, however, so Mr. Breyault said his group is urging the FTC to require companies to notify customers before each recurring charge, and remind them they can cancel if they want.
Would constant email or text reminders become annoying? Maybe, Mr. Breyault said. “But it’s more annoying to keep paying for subscriptions you no longer use.”
The FTC offers an annual reminder for anything but subscriptions involving the delivery of physical goods. (The idea is that getting stuff delivered to your door is prompt enough.)
The FTC’s proposal would also give consumers the option to hear alternative, money-saving presentations before canceling service. (The FTC’s Mr. Kohm said he used such an offer himself. When he canceled a radio subscription, he said, he was offered a much lower rate to continue and accepted it.)
But the changes are intended to avoid situations like the one described in a letter to the FTC from two dozen attorneys general, in which a customer tried to cancel a subscription using a company’s online chat. The company representative repeatedly urged him to reconsider, ignoring the man’s firm request to cancel, keeping him on the line for about 40 minutes.
Here are some questions and answers about managing and canceling subscriptions:
How can I best keep track of my subscriptions?
“It requires a mental reset,” Mr Howard said. He recommends that once every three months — for example, when the seasons change — you go through your checking and credit card statements and review recurring charges to “see all the things we didn’t remember we had.”
If there is something you no longer use, cancel it. He admits that’s not always easy, especially with some cable companies and many gym memberships. You may have to call the cable company, he said, where you may be transferred to a “retention” specialist who may offer some kind of temporary discount to keep you. With gyms, you may have to visit a location.
Should I use a subscription tracking app?
There are now many apps that will scan your bank account or credit card statements for recurring payments, and may even offer to cancel subscriptions for you. But the apps require you to share your account information and, in some cases, may charge a fee.
In their letter to the FTC, the attorneys general took a dim view of such programs. “We believe consumers should not have to sign up for yet another service” to manage their subscriptions, they wrote.
What else can I do to avoid unwanted subscription charges?
The FTC advises that consumers beware of pre-marked boxes when making a purchase online. Those boxes can sign you up for a product or service you don’t want unless you uncheck them. If you cancel a subscription but are still charged, the commission recommends disputing it with your credit card company. You can also file complaints with the The FTC website.